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How to Use Profanity and Other Raw Talk In Your Fiction

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by A. E. Lowan, Dec 26, 2013.

  1. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    This is a fun article that crossed my desk today -

    http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-use-profanity-and-other-raw-talk-in-your-fiction?et_mid=654238&rid=239091525

    Writing urban fantasy, we use profanity and, as they put it, vulgarity when called for, and we feel pretty comfortable doing it (not that it's a requirement for urban fantasy, mind you). But, we also have the modern world to draw on. Writing in a pure fantasy environment, do you use modern profanity, older terms, avoid it, or make up your own?
     
  2. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    I cringe at most attempts to "make up your own". Most sound like eye-roll worthy attempts to transmute modern conventions into old-world equivalents. Yuck!

    I think certain words easily translate into a fantasy setting and most insults or profanity deal with certain common elements and subjects.

    I guess what it boils down to for me, is: Would my character speak this way... Would this set of circumstances initiate potty-mouthness... and is the language I used appropriate to the setting, character, and time period.

    In certain novels, I use higher-educated characters and in others I typify the scoundrel a bit more. Their language changes as appropriate, but sometimes, your brainy character uttering a curse word is very effective at showing their current emotional state. Other times... pages of vulgarity just becomes tedious, even though the character is a pirate and has a mouth that makes grannies swoon.

    I think it's a matter of respecting the reader whilst staying true to a character. Personally, I feel other ways of speaking are more effective than profanity, but that doesn't prevent me using the occasional naughty word in my work.

    P.S. In real life, I swear like it's going out of fashion. But in polite company, I refrain from embarrassing those around me or making people uncomfortable. I believe that's the downside of swearing in a novel. If you do it in public, you can quickly notice you have offended someone and stop from doing it again. In a novel... you have already done it by the tie the reader opens the cover. If they are offended, they put you down and never pick you up again.
     
  3. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    One thing that's interesting is that in my personal, everyday vocabulary I do swear rather frequently (except when angry - for some reason I see this as an escalation) mostly as a consequence of my background as a Navy brat. But, two made-up words have worked their way in - "fardles" (and it's related "fardling") which I think I picked up reading Anne McCaffrey, and "farking" which I have no idea where I ran across.

    On a related and extremely amusing note, here is Chuck Wendig's perspective on swearing. Now, obviously, this is Chuck Wendig, so it's NSFW -

    The Terribleminds Choose-Your-Own-Profanity Generator « terribleminds: chuck wendig

    Just to quote -
     
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2013
  4. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    I tend to stay away from it for the most part, though occasionally I'll use a "d*mn", "sh*t(e)" or "b*stard", where appropriate in my works involving modern characters (even in a non-modern setting. I love portal fantasy). For pure fantasy stories, I'll use those, though I'd be less inclined to use words like "h*ll", since most if not all of my medieval characters are non-adherents to Christianity, or simply haven't been exposed to it. My Norse and Norse-Gaelic characters, for instance, would use the name of the goddess Hel (from which comes the word h*ll, IIRC), the realm of Helheim, or Niflheim instead.
     
  5. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    I tend to have my characters talk like the people I've encountered who're similar to them. That means the young ones use a lot of profanities. I still tend to keep "****" as something special, though, typically for when someone really loses their patience.

    Then again, this was my establishing scene for a childhood bully:

    Childish, I know, but it feels to me like it really lets his personality shine through.

    Edit: Damn autofilter! I can't even properly broach the question of how magnets work!
     
  6. ndmellen

    ndmellen Minstrel

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    This is a great topic.

    My personal thought is that it depends on the character and who they are as an individual rather than what their role is. My MC is female and has a mouth like a trucker. She was raised by men, but not just any type of men; hard men. Although my supporting male characters use profanity only sparingly, my MC uses profanity as a form of "proving she belongs." It's a little more complicated than that, of course, but her cursing is one of the ways that she uses to try and prove she's just as tough as the boys.
     
  7. ndmellen

    ndmellen Minstrel

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    To ask a question on a further topic, what are your thoughts on gore and viscera?

    I don't believe in blood for the sake of blood, but having grown up in muay thai gyms and worked as a paramedic I know what the various stages of injury and death look like. My novel is dark fantasy and has many scenes of violence. I wrote and detailed each scene the way that I remembered them being/ feeling/ smelling/ to me. I've been told "wow; that's graphic", and "wow; I felt like I was there."

    How much is too much?
     
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Presumably your entire work is written in modern English. Why should the profanity be different?
     
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  9. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    I think it depends on the individual. I also had a rather gruesome upbringing - my parents are both emergency medical professionals and my father is retired Navy with some very interesting specialties - my experiences with table talk and "how was work?" discussions were vastly different than most. So I think I share your cavalier "parts is parts" attitude that comes with the territory of dealing with the results of other people's violence, as well as dealing it yourself.

    That being said, most people's experience with these things is limited to TV and the movies, and they don't know that death is not the clean, heroic, instant action they see. They don't understand the charnel house smells, the pleading, the screams of big men reduced to meat. So, these things will probably be a bit shocking to them.

    Now, how much is too much? That's a difficult question, and one I'm still working on. There are lines we don't cross in our dark urban fantasy. For example, we won't write about cruelty to animals. It's one of our issues and something we feel strongly is not fit for entertainment (see latest blog entry). We also don't believe in gratuitous anything, and that includes violence. But we do strive to be a realistic as possible when violence occurs, because we write about a violent sub-culture inhabited by dangerous people. We go to very dark places - how dark we'll go still remains to be seen.
     
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2013
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  10. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I make up my own terms, but it usually comes to me on the fly. I use it before I even really know what it means, if that makes sense. I try to keep it simple, make it similar to something we'd hear on our world but made more old-timey.
     
  11. JRFLynn

    JRFLynn Sage

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    I use a lot of profanity, which surprised me at first but I find I have a lot of pent up rage :D There's a mix in my dark fantasy, most is made up or old-fashioned, including the classics like [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], @rse, some of which may sound watered down but it's pretty strong in their context. Also, based on my world, I have variations akin to Hell and GD.Tends to get heaviest during dire/stressful situations, but I figure at the end of the day people are people regardless of station or creeds. It does help bring them down to earth, lighten them up, even the "noble" kings and so on. Knowing that profanity is mostly filler-fluff though, I try not to use it every other sentence, just during those jewels in time when everything is f***ed...

    Honestly, can't say I blame people if they hate it, i'm under a pen name because I know just how my fam would react. I grew up in a very strict religious background so it's quite difficult at times coming to terms with some of the subject matter I wish to cover, and how deeply I should delve into the grit. Can't seem to go around it though, like it or not profanity is a part of life and pretending it doesn't exist doesn't make it any less an aspect of our reality. Hopefully, the way it's delivered won't be too irksome to readers.
     
  12. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I've read several authors that use modern profanity in fantasy worlds and I actually prefer that. Richard K. Morgan and Joe Abercrombie both do this without it seeming out of place. While some readers may find it jarring, I prefer that to some other made-up terms I've seen. I don't know, when I read terms made up for a fantasy world they just remind me of The Smurfs. "Where's my smurfing money?"
     
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  13. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    If it's an issue of modernity, the f-word is at least five centuries old.
     
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  14. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    I seem to recall it being an abbreviation for "Fornicating Under Consent of the King."
     
  15. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I was brought up in an environment where swearing and cursing was seen as a sign lacking vocabulary and an inability to express oneself properly. It's coloured my perception of profanity in writing. Logically I understand it has its place and that there are places where it can be used to great effect.
    From a more emotional point of view I easily get annoyed by profanity in writing. It's not that the words as such offend me. It's that unless it's done well it cheapens the experience for me - much in the same way bad spelling or grammar would (for probably most of you).

    All that said, if I did end up with a character who swears, I would most likely use common, current swear words. Crude as I may find them, I also think they carry a lot more force with a reader than any made up words I could think of would.
     
  16. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    According to Wikipedia that's an urban legend. There are many possible origins for F***. From Dictionary.com it says the origin is 1495–1505; akin to Middle Dutch fokken to thrust, copulate with, Swedish dialect focka to copulate with, strike, push, fock penis.

    There are more possible origins mentioned in the wiki entry.
     
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  17. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    That's a very interesting linguistic point - scatological words and words referring to copulation don't tend to change much over time, or at least so says my writing partner who studied linguistics tells me. Case in point, recently I had one of our characters, an 800 year-old half-Sidhe named Etienne, utter the word "merde" under his breath just before a fight broke out (French for "crap," for anyone who doesn't know). Later it bugged me. He's half-French, but his human father spoke Old French, a dialect which I am admittedly not that familiar with. Is this the word that Etienne would use under pressure, the word from his childhood? Turns out, yes, it looks like "merde" has gone through the centuries unchanged, and even so far back as its Latin roots it has only shifted from "merda."
     
  18. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    If it's in the character's nature to use profanity, I will do so unabashedly. Some people in our reality cuss like the words have no more importance than "the" or "and". Since I want my characters to feel real, there are some that may represent that segment of the population. In my view, that's just one aspect of characterization.

    As far as modern curse words are concerned, I don't try to make them fit into any obsolete pronunciation. I also don't invent my own curses. This is a matter of style, but since I don't write with a bunch of "thees" and "thous", I see no reason to alter any other words, cussing included.

    Hopefully, like other stylistic choices, the reader is engaged in the story to the point where they don't even notice these style choices.
     
  19. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    I believe in English... as was previously stated the F-word came from "to copulate" ... it also meant to strike.

    The ones I hate most are things like... "By Grabthar's Hammer!" and the like. They make me cringe and it's just too forced. I like incorporating certain elements, like in one passage I wrote... "I couldn't break him out of jail. They had him locked up tighter than a virgin's knickers and..." Is that an expression we would use? no. But in my world... it's completely appropriate and especilly to the person who said it. Also.. a modern reader wouldn't find anything difficult to understand. I think coining phrases is alright, especially if your character has a particular way of speaking, but to take "Oh my god, look at that!" and turn it into... "Oh Julianos' beard, look at that!" it just gets painful to read.


    On the subject of blood and gore... that's a whole different matter. I'll put it in another post.
     
  20. Graylorne

    Graylorne Archmage

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    Ho even! (That's Dutch for 'wait a moment')
    I write fantasy with a historical flavor, so I try not to use expressions that clearly don't fit. I do not use thees and thous because they're most of the time silly and wrong. For the same reason do I try to use swear words that fit in my story. That is indeed a matter of style.

    In my present WIP I have a girl who exclaims, 'Otha! There goes our mission.' Or elsewhere, 'What by Otha's Tits is a dirigible?' These follow logically out of her thinking processes. A Roman swearing 'By Jove' is perhaps unoriginal, but they did say that. And many many latin vulgarities as well.

    I recently bought a great book, Holy Sh*t, by Melissa Mohr. It gives an explanation of the history of swearing. Very helpful
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2013
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