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?