Should Your Characters Swear?
Short answer: Probably not.
Long answer: Read my blog post.
I won’t make you sit through the creative writing workshops of my collegiate years. Imagine a room full of young adults fresh out of high school ready to write something “real.”
You know the type. The ones that uphold The Catcher and the Rye as teenage gospel. The ones still arguing with their parents that they’re adults. The ones that bring all their angst into the classroom—and into their writing.
Within the first line of dialogue, a swear word is dropped. Then quickly the vulgarity vibrates throughout pages of this character chat. It doesn’t matter if it’s an argument, an apathetic rambling or a cheerful conversation.
And when these pages were read aloud, talk about awkward. At least for me.
Reading these stories was like deciphering code. I had to block out the curses dropped between every other ordinary word in order to make sense of the dialogue and story. It was a lot of work for a reader who didn’t want to read this mess.
Sorry, college peers.
What bothered me the most was the professor’s face. S/he appeared unaffected by the classless disgrace happening to the story’s vernacular. S/he simply let it slide, daring not to change the writer’s “style.”
Insert major eye-roll.
If the creative writing programs of colleges and universities aren’t going to stand up for vocabulary’s moral reputation, then I will.
This needs to be said: Stop cursing like a sailor in your writing. Just stop.
Why Your Characters Shouldn’t Swear
I have a pocketful of reasons, but they all boil down to this: Swearing = no creativity.
Turn to Your Favorite Books
Chances are, your all-time favorite novel doesn’t curse like there’s no tomorrow. The author might have thrown in a choice word or two, but the juice of the story comes from the action, characters and tension built from appropriate vocabulary.
You’re a Better Writer Than That
Stop being lazy. Why rely on curse words to personify a character when you have an entire vocabulary at your disposal?
How evil is your antagonist? How frustrated is your protagonist? Think of all the ways you can bring this to life without leaning on a taboo word to get the job done.
It could be the difference between a story and the next great novel.
Just Be Creative
You can express a character swearing by not subjecting us to the taboo words. For example: “He cursed each time he missed the shot.”
And sometimes it’s wittier to not swear. I once had a supervisor who I didn’t know insulted me to my face until twenty minutes later when I was back at my desk.
You could be missing out on an opportunity for a character quirk. Perhaps they say a strange word or phrase in place of a swear word. You could be creating the next quotable character.
Give yourself the permission to think bigger than the curse. Be descriptive. Be imaginative. If it’s not good enough, cross it out and brainstorm another.
Why Cursing Doesn’t Make Your Story Any More Real
We live in a society today where we’re numb to the use of curse words. Just walk through a high school hallway and I’m sure the F bomb gets dropped a dozen times before you make it to the principal’s office.
I remember going disc golfing with my family and we were behind a group of college-age men cursing up a storm. My mother almost passed out before the seventh hole.
And that’s how I keep my writing in perspective. Would I curse this way in front of my mother?
Of course not. So why curse this way in my writing?
I can’t speak for you. Perhaps you and your mother don’t have parental controls on your vocabulary.
When it comes to cursing, writing to be real puts reality in a bad light. We realize the lack of creativity our conversations as well as the repetitiveness of our word choices.
Writing to be real means getting the cadence of conversation right. Not to shove swear words in because we often say them.
Stop Throwing This Study into the Argument
This study always gets thrown carelessly into the debate as if it’s solid evidence for the curse camp. In actuality, this research does nothing for the argument.
Not a big fan of reading research reports? I’ll give you the basics.
A few years ago, cognitive scientists executed an academic-style version of Myth Busters on the social belief that the more your curse, the smaller your vocabulary.
Participants in the three studies took the Controlled Word Association Test (COWAT) that measures a person’s verbal fluency. Participants were asked to say as many words that came to their head starting with a given letter, such as S or D, during a specific time window. The number of real words they spoke determined their fluency score.
Seems easy. But then the study took an awkward (or hilarious) turn. Next, the participants were asked to speak as many swear words that came to mind in 60 seconds. The number of inappropriate words they cursed determined their taboo word fluency.
All in the name of science.
The result? The findings showed that the number of curse words known correlated positively with their COWAT performance. In other words, the more curse words you know, the larger your vocabulary.
This is where the research gets misused. The study’s findings were about how many curse words the participant knew, not how often the participant cursed.
How does that saying go? Oh yes: A smart person knows what to say. A wise person knows whether or not to say it.
Just because you know the taboo words or you’ve developed a character with curse word prowess, doesn’t mean they should say the words. Or would make that choice.
When It’s Okay to Let Your Characters Curse
Call me a contradiction, but there are a handful of times that your characters can curse. More precisely, two.
The Rough Draft
You shouldn’t restrain yourself when first getting your story down on paper. Don’t pause because you can’t think of a better word than a curse. Jot it down, circle it and move on.
Then, when it’s time to bring out your inner editor, strategize a better linguistic solution.
I mean it. Just once. Get it out of your system.
Here’s the key: Make that curse word count.
Wouldn’t it be more effective for a quiet, closed-off character to blurt out a bleep during a high-tension scene? This shows that the character is finally opening up and making a breakthrough. But if that character mumbled curses throughout the story, it wouldn’t have the same impact.
It’s about how you use your words that makes a story. Would you rather be known for writing what’s “real”—or infusing awe in your readers?
The choice is yours.
Aside from agreeing with your overall conclusion about curse words, I am delighted to see your competent analysis of the misuse of the research in that cursing study. Golly, what a surprise – people who know more words, know more curse words! Who would have imagined!! Yes, the distinction is between what you CAN do and what you CHOOSE to do, and when and how you choose to do it. Kudos!
Thanks for the kind, curse-free words! It’s always important to look at a study objectively instead of with a mission to support your argument. What’s funny is that I discovered this study from an article using it as evidence that those who know more curse words curse more. Go figure!
Many thanks for taking the time to read my blog post.