Ah, cursing. It’s so much fun. What’s a story without some seriously slippery words? Make ‘em blush, make ‘em laugh.
I’m an author who curses in her books. A lot. I’ve always found a use for the spicy words in my plot, but more importantly, in my characters. My villains curse, my heroes curse. Hell, I even have a swearing angel.
So when I saw the topic of profanity and cursing as an option for my article, I jumped on it and gave it an inappropriately long hug with a little pinching. Because I love it.
Maybe I’m the worst person to write this article. It should be a warning to go light with the dirty words. Seriously, if you clobber readers with the filthiest combination of nonsense, it could really backfire. The word *&%$ can be an assault on the eyes and sensibilities of your reader. I think that’s why I don’t curse in books just for the sake of cursing. I need a good reason. When I’m ready to plunk down a pungent phrase, the curse needs to help define things like character, solidify a setting, or establish a mood.
My cursing character needs to have a reason to let the profanity fly. They have to be angry, cankerous, or scared. For instance, it has to fit my criminal’s way of relating to the world around him. Another favorite character-related reason is establishing a relationship. In the real world, a huge part of adult friendships are inside jokes and ease with one another. Profanity between the two characters can show, rather than tell, how close friends or family are.
For example, if my one tough male character just smiles when his brother calls him a horrible, filthy nickname, the reader can deduce they have an established background of respect. Many times, that’s how male friends interact with one another in the real world. Let me set up a quick, sanitized version of what I’m talking about below:
Blake hollered to his brother across the crowded room, “Hey, girl, you late ‘cause you were putting your make-up on again?”
Beckett flipped him the bird. “No, butt fluffer, I quit wearing your make-up years ago.”
Now, obviously, I’d normally pepper this exchange with swear words. This scene depicts the quick back and forth that often occurs when male friends/family get together.
At times, I use profanity to establish a setting for the reader. A few nasty curses can set a story quickly. Depending on the tone in which they’re spoken, the reader can drop themselves into a dangerous situation in a hot minute. A criminal or villain can be plotting murders and the extreme language can imply the severity of the threats. Also, the absence of cursing can set a scene; maybe our dirty-mouthed character using clean dialogue alerts the reader to the presence of children or a new setting where they’re trying to fit in.
How about if your setting is a bedroom? That’s a tricky situation. Some profanity, well-placed, can totally heat up a scene. Used incorrectly, a grungy curse can take a romantic coupling from climactic to catastrophic. How does a writer tell which reaction they might inspire? Well, read it aloud (no kids around, please!) and really hear it from your character’s point of view. If the same words were spoken to you in a similar situation, would you be more likely to take off your underwear or slap the curser in the money-maker? If the combination of words makes you feel creepy or like you’ve been launched into a bad porno movie, you’re doing it wrong.
My favorite use is mood establishment. Nicely used profanity can seriously increase the humor or irony in a book. As I mentioned before, I have a cursing seraph in my stable of characters. When you meet Emma with glistening wings, she also has a mouth on her like a truck driver getting kicked in the privates. Readers can deduce she’s not an average angel. It makes for an interesting premise to investigate, leading the reader further into the book so they can find out why she’s so different.
Now with this glowing recommendation to swear it up in your books, I need to trot out a warning. Using swear words in a novel is a delicate process. Ever go into a store and hear a random person cursing like a fiend into their phone? Personally, it makes me see red, especially if my children are with me. More than once I’ve asked someone to knock it off because my kids were within earshot. I immediately wanted to be far, far away from those annoying people, and I know I’m not the only person with that reaction. I’m willing to bet a majority of readers are inclined to feel the same way. So when constructing a story, we have to remember a lot of the readers wouldn’t necessarily enjoy being subjected to giant shovelfuls of the worst words we can come up with.
That being said, this is fiction, and readers can spend time with characters they wouldn’t normally invite over for a dinner party in real life. Profanity might even make your characters unbelievable. If you have a super curser, spouting his nonsense at inappropriate times, readers might lose the delicate connection to the story you’ve so lovingly created.
As an author, you should totally know the power of the written word. A sentence can be a gift. It can inspire, scare, or even titillate. So let’s just assume cusswords are one of the items in our literary toolbox. Sort of like a nail gun or a band saw, you better learn how to use the tools properly before firing them up and letting them loose on your readers.
In order to successfully use a curse word in your manuscript, you need a good reason to pepper a sentence with a dramatic power tool of a word. Cursing for the sake of letting some nastiness fly is a waste and it reduces the impact the same type of word can have in another crucial scene in your plot.
Can cursing have usefulness? Oh yeah. It can pretty much cover the whole canvas of human emotion. Maybe think of your dirty word arsenal as a bright color. You can’t paint a whole room with it, but it really adds a pop of vibrancy in a few accessories.
A carefully orchestrated curse can bring so much to the party. A big pile of swear words in an unfortunate spot in the plot can be like stepping in dog poop, ruining forward motion and angering the person with the stinky foot.
I’ve compared cursing to a power tool and a bright color. Honestly, profanity can be an interesting and at times necessary way to orchestrate the journey you’re hoping to take your readers on. Wield your keyboards carefully, but bravely.
Debra Anastasia is the author of two curse filled novels, Poughkeepsie and Crushed Seraphim. She’s a mom, a writer, and a nightmare. Her hobbies include knitting, avoiding the laundry, and slapping clowns. She’s currently writing the sequel to Crushed Seraphim. At www.DebraAnastasia.com, you can subject yourself to more of her craziness.