What do you think about profanity in things you read? Do you mind it? Like it? Think it makes the work more real or edgier?
I’ve been thinking a lot about profanity in my writing. My work isn’t saturated with profanity by any means, but my characters do use the f-bomb on occasion. As I’ve learned more about trying to have a career as a writer, I’ve learned that closes certain markets to me. It absolutely will affect your ability to sell your work.
Here are some lessons I’ve learned about using profanity in writing.
Lesson One – Sometimes a curse word is the best word.
There’s an old Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor movie called The Silver Streak. As part of the movie, Gene Wilder gets thrown off a train again and again. And each time there’s a shot of him punching the air and yelling out, “Son of a BITCH!” And every time he does it, I laugh harder. It just would not be even a fraction as funny if they changed it to “Son of a BISCUIT!’ or “Son of a B-!”
Lesson Two – And sometimes it’s not.
There’s a gentleman who attends our critique group who’s writing a collection of essays intended to encourage people to read the Bible. On one particular night, I read right after he did, and my scene include four f-bombs. I know, because I was excruciatingly aware of each one. I went home that night and thought that if I was embarrassed to read the word, perhaps I shouldn’t be using it.
I went through my writing that night, searching for the F-word. And each time I found it, I evaluated whether I really needed that word. I found, for instance, that a lot of instances of “What the F*@$!” were just as meaningful when changed to “What the hell!” or “What the…”
Lesson Three – Sometimes it’s just what your character would say.
As I went through that novel, I realized that there were a lot of times that the F-word simply was the right word. It was absolutely what that character would say in that situation and to change it would alter the meaning of the dialogue and the character in an unacceptable way. So I left it there. That’s who the character is.
Lesson Four – Profanity is a way of building your characters.
What words your character uses when cursing is part of who they are. Let’s say we have three female characters witness something scary.
The first one says, “Oh, my heavens!”
The second one says, “Oh, f- f- fudge!”
And the third says, “Oh, holy F*@$ing S^*@!”
Right away, the reader has a picture of who these women are, just from the fact that one curses without hesitation, the other bites back the profanity, and the third never even thought of using a curse. Just from that brief moment, you probably like one better than others, and you have a mental picture forming of them.
Lesson Five – Censorship still sucks
I am not now, nor have I ever been, an advocate for censorship. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t use profanity in your writing. Just that you should be aware that you may be limiting your available markets by your word choices.