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Swearing in a Fantasy Setting

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Greybeard, May 10, 2011.

  1. Greybeard

    Greybeard Minstrel

    Characters swear. That's a necessary element of realism. But should they use real swear words, even in a fantasy setting?

    Or do you prefer to invent new swear words? If that is the case, how do you approach creating these colorful terms?
  2. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    I try to stay away from the more serious swear words, though sometimes the situation calls for it. I certainly don't sprinkle swearing on every page or anything like that. There might be five or six swear words in the whole novel. Sometimes I just write "He swore," which gets around the problem nicely, but overdoing that doesn't work either - maybe twice or three times. For more general swearing, I try to do culturally specific swears - one I have that relates to the local religion is "Sune lead you in the dark/to your next life" - Sune being one of the two gods, but the god of deception, lies, dishonesty, darkness, and all things base. They believe in reincarnation and that one of the gods will lead you to your next life when you do. If it's Sune, it means you've led a dishonest life and the life in which you'll find yourself next will be low born (a virtuous life is rewarded with being born into a wealthy or influencial family; thus it is assumed that anyone born a prince must be fundamentally honest, and someone born a slave is dishonest). This is the equivalent of "damn you". The shortened version is "Sune lead you."

    I don't have any words suitable for "oh dear, I'm in trouble now", situations, however.
  3. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    Pardon my asterisks, but **** yeah. I love a good swear. I swear quite profusely in real life, and needless to say, a few of my characters are potty mouths. Though dialogue doesn't feature heavily, I've got a narrator who will say things like "Algernon told him to go to hell", so even then the censorship is limited. As for 'fantasy' swears, I've got mixed thoughts. It's tough to do it unobtrusively. I roll my eyes if I see "by the gods!" or "damn you all to Hades/Hel!", it just reads like a fantasy parody. It should be limited and handled with care. I want a good sense of the religion, if it is religion being substituted in (it tends to be), before you start throwing those out there. Otherwise, I'll just giggle at it. Probably not the intent.
  4. Waltershores

    Waltershores Dreamer

    Swear and swear and swear IMHO. Appropriate use of curse words in a scene can emphasize the importance of what is taking place and it makes the characters real. I always enjoy seeing creative swearing. I remember watching Battlestar Galactica and how much I enjoyed hearing all the characters Fracking cursing up a storm. Smart way to get around the sensors. :)
  5. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    I'm not much of a fan of fantasy swear words either. They often tend to sound contrieved and or don't get the meaning across because the reader isn't familiar with them.
    Things referring to excrements or sexuality could work in many settings, even though most of them shouldn't make it into print, I assume. ;)
    I haven't stumbled across this problem yet but that might just be because my main character is a relatively well-behaved young girl in a country where women are expected to be well-behaved anyway.
    Things related to religion don't work but they can only be substituted if the religion is very well-established, I think.

    In my own world, it's much more commom to use comparisons to pests than in our own world, which is considered extremely rude. That is because some of the people using such terms against others mean them literally: "I'd like to kill you and I wouldn't be sorry at all." As it goes with this kind of thing, there are always people who use it for the shock-value, though.
  6. JBryden88

    JBryden88 Troubadour

    I already have the characters speak "english," why not use swear words that are "english?"

    That said the f-bomb is likely not going to be used much, but sh*t is a common one for alot of lowly common folk.
  7. Abomination

    Abomination Dreamer

    Good point.
    Swear words are like any other invented linguistic element--whole languages, funky names, unrecognizable thing-names etc. They get in the reader's way unless they are used sparingly.

    So yeah my characters swear. And they swear in English. I have no ethical problem with including swear words, I'd rather have a realistic (read: good) book than a clean one. Granted, I don't write for children or anything.
  8. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    I enjoy the fornicating infernum out of getting creative with swearing. ;)

    Seriously: there are really only two considerations. First, is swearing the sort of thing the character does? Second, does your market give a rat's asinine euphemism whether you use it or not? If the answers to both are "yes," then find elliptical methods to accomplish #1–"He swore," etc.

    You're writing in English; use English swear words. (If you have deities with nonstandard names, these will likely take the place of "God": one of my favorite fantasy characters routinely used the oaths "Thoem's balls!" and "Shenan's tits!" Though if the deities actually exist, this can on occasion create its own set of problems.…) Some research into historical variants can prove useful here: you can create atmosphere and avoid modern taboos at the same time. A couple hours with Shakespeare–or a few minutes flipping randomly through Chaucer–ought to be enough to provide good examples. A few "God's wounds/blood!" mixed in with indirect references to anatomy (say, by mentioning the garments that cover them), salted with uncomplimentary comparisons to animals, references to dubious lineage, cleanliness, sexual practices or physical defects, and maybe an occasional pointed comment regarding intelligence or education, should suffice.

    Or to put it another way: "That God-blighted, ill-gotten, goat-loving son of a pox-ridden dog isn't fit to lick my breeches clean!" –Sounds sooo much better than "That goddamn bastard goat****er sonofabitch can kiss my ass!", don't'cha think? ;)
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  9. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    I think the swear words a person uses are a great way to lead a reader a bit into their culture. The oft-mentioned-above 'various God-curses' are a good example. You can have a person refer to it by swearing, and then when the reader sees more info of it after they go 'oh yeah, so that's what that was...'

    Anne Mcaffrey has some of my favorites in the Dragon Riders of Pern books. I remember especially they use 'shards' as a sort of low-level curse, and they swear 'by the first egg.' Instant view to the culture within the book.

    The only holdover curse word I keep from the real world is damn. I figure it's light enough that few people will be offended, and the sentiment is general enough that just about any culture, fictional or otherwise, is going to have its version.
  10. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    I try to stay away from F-bombs, although I don't mind reading them. God curses seem kind of played-out, but I can deal with them if they are creative. As for anything else, I'm all for it. It gives a dirtiness to dirty characters and can be used as "commoner" banter. You know, most soldiers don't say things like, "Oh goodness, here comes the opposing army! Whatever shall we do?" More like "Crap! Rush the #$&#&%!"
  11. ade625

    ade625 Scribe

    Unless you can come up with a convincingly sharp swear word that works lyrically in the setting ('frak' is the only example I can think of that somewhat works) I'd say swear as much as you think necessary. My characters only generally swear when they're in extreme peril, which come to think of it, is most of the time.
  12. Mythos

    Mythos Troubadour

    I use a few swear words, but I haven't made a character that swears constantly yet. When I do use swearwords they're usually: b*tch or sh*t, or sometimes just s/he swore.

    I don't trust myself to create a good swearword for my world, but if you can do it then go for it.
  13. I've never felt the need to resort swearing in anything I write. That's possibly the result of being brought up a polite young thing. Or not. Either way, like exclamation marks I find such things unnecessary. In my experience using expletives isn't the sign of a bad writer, but it's seldom the sign of a good one. :)
  14. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    Now that you say that, I'm trying to think of a great writer who doesn't swear at least a little. Austen, I suppose. Definitely not Vonnegut, I seem to recall him going on a tirade about whale penises in one of his novels. Not Ray Bradbury, not William Faulkner, definitely not J.D. Salinger, nor Mark Twain or Harper Lee, not Joyce Carol Oates, hell even in children's fiction, it can be hard to find a good book without a few 'hells' and 'damns'.
  15. I suppose it depends on your definition of swearing.

    Admittedly I was somewhat shocked by the use of 'bloody' in the Harry Potter movies, but I've obviously led a very sheltered life.:D
  16. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    Well, I separate Twain and Lee because the only one they used much was the N-word, which makes sense for the stories they tell (though they both certainly have a few good light curses, damns and hells and whatnot). But Vonnegut, who I consider a master of literature? I'm pretty sure he's had more than a couple of sentences where every other word began with 'f'.
  17. I'm neither a fan nor detractor of Vonnegut. He means nothing to me, though you're not alone in considering him a master of literature. I sail different seas though.:)
  18. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

    Twain and Vonnegut are both good examples of what I personally consider to be an 'appropriate' use of cursing in literature. Mark Twain was actually quite a progressive person for his time, and his use of language in his work, profanity, slurs, and all; was to paint an accurate picture of the time period he was basing his stories in. Vonnegut, at least the small section of his work that I've read, is essentially doing the same.

    That being said, and with the caveat that I do curse a good deal myself, there is a time and place for things. If your writing is made up mostly of cursing, then yes, you're probably going overboard. If your characters can't think of any better adjectives than F***ing, you may need to reconsider your vocabulary.

    I don't mind seeing curses now and then, or even the words used in their literal sense, such as to describe intercourse or fecal matter in a crude way. I think they are even appropriate, used in that sense; as I can't imagine a fairly uneducated castle servant grumbling about having to scrub fecal matter (or any of the other lovely PC terms we've created) out of a chamber pot.
  19. Chase Simba

    Chase Simba Dreamer

    Generally use very minor swearwords, and use swearwords or phrases that work in the world, like "Oh gods, what now?" in a heavily religious world, the character has just done something massive and senses something new.
    Phil the Drill's right though, in that you've got to be serious. My example in place of his would be "Oh (God of war)dammit, they're coming. At arms!". But basically, do whatever's best per the situation.
  20. Poppa Weelee

    Poppa Weelee Dreamer

    Read David Gemmell's Druss The Legend books for a crash course on fantasy swearing. It basically boils down to (Diety of evil)'s (naughty bit) i.e. "Shemak's balls!" "Asta's tits" and I'm sure there are others.

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