Monday, May 27, 2019


Profanity – Blasphemous or obscene language
Obscenity - An extremely offensive word or expression
            Among the controversies of the day, one issue rarely discussed any more is the use of obscene or profane language in fiction. Writers must decide what type of language their characters use. After all, a kindergarten teacher probably won’t use the same language as an inner-city cop working undercover on a drug case - if either of them spoke like the other, it wouldn’t be believable. The problem writers have is balancing realistic language with our readers' tolerance level. 
            That being said, I do NOT like books, TV shows or movies where profanity is used just to use it. On the other hand, neither will I refuse to read a book because some of the characters use the kind of four letter words my mother never expected to hear from my mouth. And, if I’m going to be completely honest, never have I hit my hand with a hammer or suffered some other painful injury and yelled, “Verily, verily, I hurt.” The day I slammed my hand in the door, not only my immediate neighbors but the ones three and four streets away received a rudimentary education in four letter words. Unfortunately, I slammed the door with my hand inside, and the rest of me outside, so the sound carried quite well.
            Mysteries come in all shapes and sizes, multiple genres, diverse settings, different language. For example, our own Jim Jackson has recently published his latest Seamus McCree novel, False Bottom. As Jim explains in his upcoming interview with Elaine Douts this Wednesday, “I tell gritty stories and many of my characters curse. I won’t change them.” That makes sense as the following quote from his character, the self-styled Happy Reaper, demonstrates:

He kept the radio tuned to news radio WBZ for anything useful related to Jerome Rozelle’s attack on Elisabeth. If he heard one more fucking political message, he’d shoot the jerks as a public service. Once he completed this job, he was vacationing abroad until the election was over. In his biography, Mark Twain had attributed to Prime Minister Disraeli the statement that there were three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. When today’s politicians spoke, it was a question only of which lie they chose. He supposed that since he didn’t vote, he shouldn’t complain—still, if political ads weren’t cruel and unusual punishment, what was?

James M. Jackson, False Bottom, Kindle Loc. 3521
            Equally, it makes sense in other settings and stories, the characters don’t curse. For example, my novel, Gambits and Games, (still seeking a home, by the way) is set in the small-town South where some men still apologize if they use curse words in front of a woman. (Really, they do; as recently as two weeks ago, I sat in a meeting where some strong language was used, only to have the sentence followed up immediately with an apology to me.)
            For example, my protagonist, Penny, makes the following observations about a politician as she walks into the courtroom:

A pit opened in my stomach when I saw Jim Krey, the state’s Attorney General, sitting at the prosecution table. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t stoop to handle a local prosecution. I wondered if he wanted to use William to punish me, but then dismissed the thought. Jim Krey had made it obvious for years he considered me beneath his and his family’s notice. A stranger observing him at the counsel table would see only a conscientious public servant. I knew better.
However, the unwritten rules of court etiquette in Alabama require opposing counsel to greet one another cordially, so as William sat, Boyd and I walked over to the prosecution table.

            But the fact that my characters in this book don’t use a lot of swear words doesn’t mean that down the road I won’t write another novel or story where characters do.
            The language our characters use gives the readers a clue both to the world the characters inhabit and to their own personality traits. The language the characters use both to speak with and to think with is an artistic choice the writer makes to help accomplish those twin goals.
            What is your tolerance for profanity? Would you refuse to read a book based upon the language used or not used? Have you read a book that is outside of your comfort zone where the language contains more or less swear words than you would normally encounter, and if so, what did you take away from the experience?


  1. I face this issue with almost every one of my books. My characters swear. Not excessively. But the cop characters call the bad guys what many real cops call bad guys. Okay, I do tone it down. But I had to laugh when one reviewer gave me kudos for my realism and in the next sentence cut me down for my use of profanity.

    What really amuses me are the sweet church ladies who have NEVER called me out on the subject and love my books.

    I always point out to the complainers that my books aren't true cozies. They're tradition mysteries or police procedurals that happen to get shelved with cozies (NOT my doing).

    As for my own tastes, I don't mind swear words at all. Now, if every other word from every character was the f-bomb, yeah. I'd think of it as lazy writing. Unless every character was a gang member.

    Bottom line: As you've pointed out, Nancy, use of language goes to character.

  2. I agree with you, Nancy, and Annette. Language should be in keeping with the character. My characters swear, but so far, no f-bombs. Not because I'm squeamish, I was raised in an all boy neighborhood, but because it would be out of character. If the usage is appropriate, it's fine with me.

  3. I don’t appreciate gratuitous profanity, violence, or sex and have stopped reading certain books/authors because of them.

    However, as the definitions you used at the head of the post suggest, what is obscene or vulgar is based on norms for a particular society (or a subset thereof) at a particular moment in time. My mother, who washed my mouth out with soap – for what word, I have no recollection – now at age 95 routinely peppers her conversations while we play cards with “damn” and even tosses in an occasional “hell.” Of course, I’m old enough to remember Sunday Blue Laws that prohibited businesses from opening on Sunday. Talk about changes in attitudes.

    Mores change and language changes with it.

  4. Too much profanity or obscene language and I will put a book down. Not because I'm offended (I have worked places where cursing is second nature to many people) as much as because it distracts me to the point that I am paying attention to the language, not the story.

    My characters occasionally use profanity or obscenities, but not often.

    I have worked in situations with law enforcement personnel and correctional officers, and very often the mark of a true professional is the ability to address virtually any situation (especially when dealing with suspects or convicts) calmly and using language that does not stray to insults or swearing. Several of my family members are cops, but they very seldom use words that they wouldn't want to hear toddlers in the family repeating.

    Nancy, I know what you mean about apologies, and it's not just Southern men. I have had prison inmates say, "Excuse my language" when they realize I have overheard them. I have taught in an innercity school with a heavy gang presence, and have had gang members say "Sorry" when I ask them to watch their language. I often told them, "Unless you intend to spend your entire life in either prison or a mental institution, you need to have control over what comes out of your mouth."

  5. I don't use profanity in my stories and books, but it's certainly implied. Profanity on the screen bothers me more than profanity on the page.

  6. I only occasionally use a profane word in my mysteries. It's hard to have killers who say, "Oh, shucks." When I was teaching, people I worked with routinely asked to be excused for their language. I must put out a vibe that profanity is offensive. I use it sparingly in my own life. I think the language has to fit the character in the book world. If it doesn't, readers find it hard to believe. If it does, and they don't like the language, they can close the book.