Cussing Characters

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Every once in a while the subject of profanity comes up in Christian fiction writing circles. “Why can’t we have a character simply come out with an expletive if that is true to the character?”

Many writers chafe at the strictures put on inspirational fiction. And yes, there are lines drawn. For the most part, these would be:

  • Sex must not be gratuitous and any sexual scenes must happen “off stage.”
  • Violence must also not be gratuitous and when shown should not be shown in graphic detail.
  • Readers don’t want to find offensive language in a book they’ve bought in the CBA market.

I know you can point to books in the CBA that have broken some of the above strictures and seemed to have gotten away with it. I’d argue that:

  • It was a veteran author who is so loved and so trusted that it was overlooked. A new or emerging author is crazy thttp://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-bad-breath-as-garlic-smell-inside-human-mouth-as-health-concept-offensive-foul-odour-caused-smoking-eating-image30560513o push the envelope in that way. It’s not worth it.
  • It probably hurt sales. There are some large chains who won’t carry a book that breaks those rules no matter who the author is. The reason? They have customers who bring those books back for a refund if they find something objectionable in it. They believe those customers lose trust in the store, the publisher and the author each time this happens. We could argue that those customers are completely out of touch but I’m telling you– those are core CBA customers.

But for me the biggest reason to avoid questionable language in a book is that it is usually lazy writing. It’s like telling instead of showing. Rather than just put a cuss word in a character’s mouth, there are so many more powerful ways to get the attitude and language across. No one has said this better than Donn Taylor, who taught English literature for eighteen years at Wayland Baptist University and Jamestown (ND) College. (His latest suspense novel is Deadly Additive, and he has also authored Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond.”) Here’s in part is what Donn said:

We shouldn’t confuse realism with literalism. Fiction is not reality. It’s an artistic construct that gives the illusion of reality. We do not have to include every detail simply because it’s there in real life. That’s why we don’t have to begin every fictional day with the hero shaving or the heroine applying eye shadow. And real life dialogue wanders all over the place; fictional dialogue is shaped to move the story forward, but it gives the illusion of real life. So we don’t have to report the exact words that a specific kind of character would say in real life. It’s quite enough to write “He cursed” and get on with the story.

While we’re on the subject: Lazy writers in the ABA market use cusswords to create the illusion of conflict. But genuine conflict is built into the structure of the story.

We should spend less time wondering what we can get by with and more time working on plot and character.

I couldn’t have said it better.

So what do you think?

TWEETABLES:

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51 Comments

  • Iola says:

    The book I most recently recall causing a cussing kerfuffle was by a debut author – Becky Wade. And it didn’t seem to hurt sales any.

    However, I absolutely agree with you that most cussing in fiction (including in my Becky Wade example) is unnecessary in a well-crafted story.

  • Mary Hawkins says:

    Thank you for this well thought out post, Wendy. This has recently come up in discussions here in Australia. The one thing to remember also is that what is considered swearing (cussing)can vary from country to country. It can also be a generational thing too. There are a couple of words in Australia now even considered by the majority as just an “Australian adjective” that my mother and father would have punished us for saying.

  • Carolyn A says:

    I certainly don’t want to read books littered with foul language, but a well-placed curse word, esp. by a villain, doesn’t bother me in the least. It seems appropriate even.

  • I have that phrase from The Princess Bride in my head,the one when Inigo Montaya says “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
    The wrong placement of a word sours the whole story, whether it’s bad grammar or a mental image so unpleasant the book itself cheapens in value.
    Crafting a scene takes work, swearing doesn’t. Slowly and artfully killing off a bad guy with freshly hatched rattlesnakes is harder than shooting him. Trust me on this.
    And remember the scene from Matthew McFadyen’s Pride and Prejudice (some chick named Karie…Kara…Keira) was in it, anyway, the scene between Lizzie and Darcy in the pouring rain, under the arch thingie and they sputter and argue and all they want to do is kiss each other? Yeah, a whole tonne of passion without a single kiss.

  • Kate says:

    This is such a challenging and well thought out post. I had been debating the use of profanity in my own head but I have not discussed this with other writers. Knowing the rules of CBA is really helpful, not only for me as a writer, but for me as a reader and parent. Thank you for spurring us on to write well in every sense.

  • Jeanne T says:

    Great post, Wendy. I personally do not like to see profanity in CBA fiction. But I may be a “word snob” of sorts. I know authors who have used it discreetly and without too many complaints. I think what you shared is right in that, good writing is going to show the character’s emotion far more effectively than having him/her spit out a cuss word.

    Loved this line: “We should spend less time wondering what we can get by with and more time working on plot and character.”

  • In the 40s and 50s, decency standards were pretty strictly enforced, and some great novels came from that period.

    Take Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny”. Setting a story in the WW2 Navy, he managed to avoid explicit sex and profanity, while recognizing that both existed and took place within the storyline.

    I particularly love his ‘use’ of profanity…two veteran sailors, seeing their captain making a ridiculously bad mistake in shiphandling, “…unleashed a flood of profanity, which, translated, meant ‘This is very unusual.’”

    I don’t think you can get more elegant than that.

  • Micky Wolf says:

    Appreciate this post, Wendy, especially your comment, “But for me the biggest reason to avoid questionable language in a book is that it is usually lazy writing.” Yep. This would also seem to be true of any occasion when a writer is hoping to convey an emotional reality of one sort or another. Too easy to ‘tell with a word’ rather than show through a character’s choices or actions.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    Had a lively discussion about this very topic over on my blog not long ago. http://sarahloudinthomas.com/2013/07/19/when-only-an-expletive-will-do/

    I recently read “Not in the Heart” by Chris Fabry and he did something I really liked to get around cursing. He wrote the sentence with a word like “stupid” where the curse word would go then added, “Except he didn’t say ‘stupid.’” It totally fit the character.

    I don’t mind not cursing, but it sure is fun to talk about ; )

  • I just quit reading a thriller, halfway through, for a gratuitous torture scene. I’m sure the author and many readers found it realistic. I found it manipulative. I’d persisted through some earlier scenes, but this one was too much. I feel the same way about harm done to children in books. There are other ways to evoke emotion and build tension, IMHO. The Donn Taylor quote is brilliant. Thanks.

  • I don’t really like hearing cursing in real life, so I don’t want to read it. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but I really like knowing when I buy a CBA book that it’ll be clean. When I hear it in real life, I tend to think the same thing…someone is lazy and uneducated, or that he/she is trying to show off (not saying this is always the case, and not trying to be judgmental at all!). I agree with you. There are better ways to show emotion.

  • Thanks for sharing a wonderful perspective on this subject! I had been wondering how to handle a few scenes where I knew my hero needed to demonstrate his connectedness to a group of thugs. Swearing is an easy identifier.

    Donn Taylor hit it out of the ballpark when he said, “It’s quite enough to write “He cursed” and get on with the story.”

    Thank you…made my day!!

  • With so many word choices, why use one or more that risk offense? Don’t most of us read Christian books because we don’t want the yuck of the world? Yes, we need conflict. But “genuine conflict is built into the structure of the story.” Excellent excerpt, Wendy.

  • I have to say that I disagree. When profanity is used WELL in fiction it packs a serious punch. I imagine that many on this blog will disagree with me, and that’s okay! :-) We probably don’t like the same books.

    • Liberty says:

      I happen to agree with you! Sometimes, there’s just no way around it, especially if a character would insert a cuss word in the middle of the sentence. It’s clunky to say, “I don’t think there’s any–” Frank cursed “–way that Jane is getting married this weekend.” In my mind’s eye, just use the word and get over it.

  • The unspoken words that show up through body language can speak much louder than a juicy piece of profanity.
    When I pick up a title from the CBA, I have an expectation that it will be a clean read. An authentic, candid romp that scours the soul.

  • Heidi Glick says:

    Everyone talks about the CBA rules, but I’ve never found a list online. I’m not against following the rules, but I’m always puzzled by how one is supposed to follow a set of guidelines that do not appear to exist in written form. If they do exist somewhere, can someone point me to them? Thanks.

  • Heidi Glick says:

    Anyway, on the topic of cursing, rather than include curse words in my writing, I allude to the fact that they character did so, but I do not mention what was said. The reader gets the point without the words.

    “A curse escaped his lips. So he wasn’t the only one with dark secrets.”–Dog Tags

    “He grabbed the notebook and took his time removing a page. The paper tore in one spot. A string of curses spewed from his lips, and he folded the first two sheets of paper. He couldn’t crumple them. The Knight stared at his clenched fists then took a deep breath. His hands trembled as he separated a perforated page from the notebook.”–Dog Tags

  • lorraine m says:

    I found this article on minced oaths interesting
    http://egads.askdefine.com/

  • Rachel Smith says:

    This is part of the reason why I’m no longer writing CBA fiction. The many restraints, “you can’t do this if you want to sell”, and IMO the lack of just enough realism, is the rest of the reason.

    A well placed curse word can convey a multitude about a character. I did it about three weeks ago, using a word I actually don’t like. Because it fit the scene and told the heroine just how much her hero has changed from the sweet man she fell in love with 15 years ago. That one sentence, with one nasty, foul word, conveyed 15 years of backstory, and gives the reason he’s trusting the woman he believes betrayed him.

    I don’t use foul language much in my writing, but I do use it. Sometimes it’s just what the sentence needs to convey the right attitude or emotion when the only other option is going into purple prose territory. Since I’m writing for ABA now, it’s not a problem for me to do that. When a character needs to say it, he or she can say it.

    And I find it very liberating.

    • Liberty says:

      Good for you! I’ve got a project I’m reworking right now that I’d originally planned to market as CBA, but decided it needed to be roughed up a little bit. I don’t use language much in that story, though it is used, just not by my MC, who is a Christian.

  • I agree with you whole-heartedly, Wendy. Even if there’s an explicative a rough character would use, it’s not healthful for Christians (or anyone) to read these words. I recently read a novel (not Christian) that I loved, but the language turned me off. I know better than to use those words, of course, but later on I found myself tempted to think them when frustrated. So it’s clear that we are affected by what we read (and listen to).

    I also don’t believe in a couple thinking about a physical relationship as soon as they fall for each other, instead of waiting for marriage. Our society today is taught that a relationship isn’t real unless it contains this physical element, when that’s so far from being true.

  • What I love, love, love about Christian fiction is that I can read a well-told, gripping story and not have to roll around in the filth of sin while doing so. Whether it’s four letter words, sex scenes, or gratuitous or graphic violence, I don’t want it. I don’t want to go there. What goes into my mind tends to stay there, and we hear and see enough of those things without them being put there by what we read for fun.

    A month ago I came across a CBA book with a swear word in the first chapter. It totally fit the character and how it would be used in real life, but it startled me. I don’t think I’d put a book down for one word like that, but I’m not a fan of it either.

    As for it being lazy writing, I agree when you see a pet word used over and over. It makes me view the character as a real lowlife who can’t figure out how to make a point without being crude and ignorant. And then you remember someone wrote this character and it reflects in the same way on the author.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Wendy. Sure hope we get to run into each other this week in Indy. Have a safe trip out.

  • Swear words–in books, in movies, in television, and in life–offend me. I don’t use them in life and so I don’t put them in my writing. When I was younger, I did put some expletives in a story because I had been told that the fact that my two main characters (who were guys) wouldn’t swear was unrealistic. I put the expletives in, then later I took them back out. As you pointed out, Wendy, there are other ways to deal with expressing a character’s anger or frustration. I love watching old movies because, well, just love watching old movies, but I also love listening to the creative expressions the writers used in place of expletives. I agree that using a foul word is just lazy writing. I recommend watching classic movies as a way to study not only how to “swear” creatively and cleanly, but how to focus the writing on plot and character development.

  • Tari Faris says:

    This is a difficult subject, because what is a swearword for one may not be to another. For example, someone above listed Becky Wade’s first book is having swearwords. Actually had to look it up on the Internet what they were. I’ve read the book and remember none in it. I was surprised by what I found, because I’ve never considered those “swearwords.” But then one thing to consider, and one thing CBA has to consider, is that it’s addressing to a multi-generational audience. What I consider vulgar, and what my grandmother would consider vulgar, are two different things. Therefore, since you’re trying to reach such a wide audience, I like the CBA standards.

    I must say that my favorite part of this post was the quote. I used to do a lot with photography. And often people would say that when I use Photoshop to get the picture I wanted it was cheating. I simply would let tell them that in art you simply choose what the highlight and choose how to portray the reality you want. I would add that I wasn’t trying to be a photojournalist. But an artist.

    I think this goes for writing too. I don’t want to be a journalist but a novelist and a novelist has the privilege of creating the world they want and the reality they want to show.

  • Lynn Hare says:

    The purpose of the Christian author’s writing, as in all strands of her life, is to direct hearts & minds to Christ. How do stories with cursing glorify God? If you’re looking for raw, unedited scenes, TV shows movies are replete with them. But in all we do, keeping Christ at the center of our worship is our responsibility. I believe we need to direct people to a God who offers His presence through our stories. Because He is holy, we are holy. That means we’re charged with bringing our readers to a higher ground, too.

  • Karey says:

    I love this post and feel vindicated. I had a really wretched character in my book Gifted and if I were writing him literally, he’d have made my pg book an R for sure. But I didn’t take that route and because I didn’t, I’ve had many school teachers choose it as a book to read to their classes, so the message of love, family, friendship and sacrifice can be enjoyed by all ages.

    I’m always so disappointed when I read a book riddled with cussing and vulgarity. There’s just no need for it.

  • Scott says:

    As a word freak, I don’t believe in bad words. I do believe in words used badly. A well-placed swear word can have tremendous effect. Unfortunately, most are not used well, and the more often they are used, the more likely they are to be used badly. In my real life, I very, very rarely swear. When I do, it gets attention. Same with my writing.

    That said, you have to know your audience. Religious readers have an expectation that books in the religious market will be clean. The same goes for books for young readers (especially MG and younger), where the author should think carefully about the mild curses that may or may not be useful in the book. I’ve seen people get into a tizzy over words like “stupid” or “sucks” in a Middle Grade story.

    If I were writing for an audience that I knew was looking for a “safe” reading environment, i wouldn’t do several of the things I’m doing in my current WiP, which does not include words that would be inappropriate in the book’s setting, but crosses several lines or implied limitations that exist in the CBA market.

  • Lisa Fowler says:

    Perhaps one reason the Church is fast losing the battle to win lost souls is that we have become “like” the world. Why should a sinner desire salvation if we who label ourselves after our Leader are no different than the world in which we live? We are to be so “different” and “set apart” from the world that it causes others to desire the Christ we follow.

    That said, it has always been my belief that books carry us to another space and allow us – if for but a brief moment in time – an escape from the realities of life. If that is indeed true, why would we desire pages lined with the same smutty language, sex scenes, and violence in our literature? Why not simply read the newspaper or watch a television program? Why bother to read a book if there is no reprieve or respite from the world in which we live?

    And why do we as writers ALLOW our readers to be so foolish? We didn’t used to have to have everything spelled out for us in black and white. Have cell phones and IPads and computers so “dumbed us down” that we have no imagination anymore? We knew full well what Rhett was going to do with Scarlet when he swept her off her feet and carried her up the stairs of Tara! There are no words – as magnificent as they can be – to describe that.

    Please forgive me, but my soap box NEEDED a good cleaning! Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  • I sure am glad I write middle grade fiction and I don’t have to deal with that “gosh darn” cussing problem.

  • Excellent comments, and good points made on both sides of the issue, however I must join those who prefer not to read swear words. Perhaps it is nit-picking to point out there is a difference between cursing and swearing, but regardless, too many times I’ve read a novel that would have been vastly improved if the profanity had been removed. An exception? Do we really want to remove the line from Gone With the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a ____” ? Problem is, of all the books I’ve read, its the only one for me where the cuss word fit perfectly. I fear too many times, its only the author who believes the choice is perfect. Guess what? Not every logger, sailor, construction worker, truck driver, or cowboy feels the need to cuss.

    • Elissa says:

      I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that line is from the movie and is not in the novel.

      That said, people who don’t want to read profanity (or explicit sex or violence) should be able to pick up a book by a trusted author or imprint and not have that trust betrayed.

    • Elissa says:

      Oops! Forgot to say I agree with you, Barbara– my post made it sound like I didn’t!

  • Coming from a very secular environment and usually writing my Christians characters in the same, I have argued this point to myself. However, I think what I’ve come to grips with is that though it is critical for me to be relatable to the readers I know, who also live in this world, I do not want to saturate them in the ungodly. As flawed human beings, we often take on the character (or stain) of the things in which we immerse ourselves. Therefore, though I don’t want to close my eyes to what the secular world is (and those living by its strictures) I don’t want to become complacent toward it either.

  • Kiersti says:

    Interesting discussion! And so many good points. Personally, one thing I appreciate in reading CBA novels is that I don’t get those words in my head the way I do when I read ABA novels, even good ones. I totally agree that it is realistic and develops the character more to have certain characters who cuss–but for me, simply saying “He cursed under his breath” or something like that communicates it without putting those words in our heads unnecessarily–they stick there so easily. Once in a while wouldn’t bother me hugely–in both books and movies, when it really gets to me is when profanity is used gratuitously over and over. Like you said, Wendy, it seems rather lazy..

    • Great points, Kiersti. I too love ABA novels, but some are so riddled w/profanity, it takes away from the plotline and actually makes the characters MORE cardboard. I’ve often felt like a weirdo in the CBA for arguing against profanity, so I’m glad to see many people still believe it is a line that should be held. I think we can be “edgy” as Christian writers in other ways…by talking about issues the Bible does, like the Bible does–without wallowing in graphic details, but getting the ideas across.

  • JoyAnne says:

    I don’t believe cursing should be in Christian fiction, that kind of language is unnecessary. We hear it on tv, in public, see it in other literature, it sounds ugly and nasty.
    As Christians we are to set ourselves apart, not do as the world does. Would Jesus appreciate a good cuss word in a book that is supposed to be about showing His love and mercy? I don’t think so.

  • Donn Taylor says:

    Wendy, I’m honored that you found my critical opinion worthy of quoting. Thanks to those who mentioned them in their comments. Like Bill Giovanetti, I’ve thrown a novel–a CBA novel–into the trash because the author seemed to want me to enjoy details of human dismemberment. That’s another essential question in selecting what to write: what are we asking our readers to enjoy? Thanks again, Wendy.

  • Jamie Ayres says:

    I guess I’ll have to look for a link on what CBA deems a “swear” word. Obviously, the use of ‘Hell’ and ‘damn’ (referring to eternal punishment) depends on the context, but even if used as a “swear” word, are those powerful enough words to be banned by them? My novel isn’t shelved in stores, only on-line, but I’d consider “18 Things” to be a YA with an inspirational theme. The MC attends church with her parents, believes in God, prays often throughout the book as she’s suffered a very tragic loss. She refuses alcohol when at a party and there’s no make out sessions or violence. But in the beginning of the sequel, there’s a character that’s more rough around the edges. He’s going through his own transformation and trying not to “swear” so there are quite a few times at the beginning where he goes to say “sh–” and says crap instead, etc . . . this leads to a discussion with my MC b/c she thinks his whole idea of a transformation is kind of comical. The only thing he really knows about Christians is they don’t “swear,” so that’s what he’s focusing on. She explains to him, “God wants us to care about what he cares about, and he always cares about people more than rules. The stories we read about Jesus demonstrated that over and over again. If you say more than five hundred thousand people die of cancer every year in America, but most people don’t give a flying—insert chosen expletive here—Jesus will take more offense to people dying and us not doing anything to help than saying a ‘bad word,’ ya know?” End quote. As this sequel is still in edits, I’d like people’s opinions on it. I do think many miss the point of being a Christian. It’s not about rules, it’s about love. I’m not writing my book for the Christian markets, per se, b/c I want to reach the lost and you can’t do that by being preachy. Your characters must sound authentic to the masses, and so I don’t see anything wrong with using a mild ‘bad’ word now and then if the scene calls for it. As a Christian, I tire of all the hokiness I see in the books and movies at my local Christian bookstore. Sorry for the long comment . . . this really got me thinking *beware of smoke coming out of ears* :-)

  • Linda glaz says:

    Nicely said, my friend.

  • I don’t like cussing in movies or TV, but it doesn’t seem as intimate as in writing.

    I’m not saying I’ve never read a story with a few curse words, but if they start on page one I usually don’t read the book. Reading certain words just hurts my spirit.

    Thanks for sharing this today.

  • Wendy, great post! And Donn, I loved it the first time I read your wise words, and I loved them this time.

    Blessings,
    Deb

  • I used to believe that some situations required cursing to be authentic. I’ve come to believe that is wrong. Even if there were a situation that demanded a curse, the writing will always be stronger without it. Cursing is the worst form of writing crutch (AKA “Weasel Words”).

    A mentor who writes for both CBA and ABA once taught me this important process for handling a situation where I thought the character just HAD to curse.

    1) In first draft, write the words just like you hear them.

    2) On rewrite, find a better way to show the character’s state of mind, emotions, and motivation.

    3) Keep rewriting until you don’t need the curse word to convey its meaning to the reader–and let the reader think of whatever word is appropriate in their context. They said it, you didn’t.

    “As I slammed into the wall I screamed something I wouldn’t want my mom to hear me say” is much stronger than “*&^%!!.”

    D.

  • Karen Sweet says:

    Hi Wendy – not swearing but how to approach violence in a YA novel, has been my recent challenge. Given the massive popularity of the Hunger Games and Twilight series, even amongst Christian young adults, I wondered what attracts young people to dark and edgy stories. I see that our Lord didn’t shy away from dark agony and bleak violence. It was His reality and what saved us. I didn’t enjoy writing the violent and/or edgy scenes in the YA fantasy but my heroine faced that kind of life. I reflected on what teens hear/see today and meant to enter their reality with His grace, hope and love. That many kids are drawn to dystopian stories says something of their fears and unfulfilled needs in our chaotic culture. I pray to offer them a more compelling, hopeful outcome than either of these series.

    Thank you for this valuable topic.

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