Fiction and Profanity—F-Bombs Away!

[Slim Pickens Riding the Bomb]
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Recently, I reread an autobiographical novel I had written a number of years ago, thinking I could tidy it up for publication. Though I enjoyed much of the writing style, I was horrified at the frequency of f-bombs. Why? Because I don’t write that way anymore. And I couldn’t even defend the use of these words as critical to the genre. This book is essentially a dramedy—Life, Love and the pursuit of sex.

Some time after, I read an interesting post by PJ Parrish, which is a pseudonym for sisters and writing partners Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols (see “Profanity in Crime Fiction: Reality or Lazy Writing?”). In it, they state …

There are different reasons why readers dislike profanity in their fiction. It can [be] colored by religious conviction, personal morals or just plain old taste. Authors are guided by the same impulses. Mark Henshaw, a Mormon crime writer, wrote a blog “Why I Don’t Use Profanity,” saying, “My short answer to the question is: because my mother reads my books. My long answer is a bit more involved.”

A Religious Debate
There are any number of articles and blog posts about whether foul language belongs in good fiction. If you’d like to test that assertion, try a Google search on “fiction and profanity.” According to Montee and Nichols, some authors write blue because they feel it’s required to make their novels realistic. Others, like Mark Henshaw, leave it out because their mothers are reading their books.

Now, I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination. I have been known to let go, using strings of colorful expletives the way Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold. And I don’t happen to think most good writers choose profanity out of laziness either. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to leave that kind of language out of my writing. Not because I feel I am better than everyone else. It’s mainly a marketing decision. In other words, I don’t want to turn off any potential new readers because they can’t get past the swear words.

Being “Authentic”
Not to take sides, but I do want to address the question of authenticity in fiction. Apparently, some authors feel that in order to depict realistic worlds (e.g., war, crime, etc.), they need to use lots of swear words. Well, I don’t think that’s true. If it were, then why isn’t urban crime fiction littered with liberal doses of the N-word? I don’t care how “realistic” you think your fiction is. The fact that you are telling a story means you are creating a world that doesn’t exist. Sure, it can resemble the real world, but in the end, it’s fake. And thank goodness!

Think about it. What if you were to write about real life exactly as it is? Wouldn’t it be kind of, I don’t know, boring? People don’t like to read fiction that depicts real life—they read to escape to a different life. And, yes, you should see things that are familiar. But a good writer is drawing you in with great characters and a powerful made-up story. So, if you agree that this is the case, then who is to say you have to include the f-word just to make things seem real?

Profanity and Violence
Very often, violent stories go hand-in-hand with profanity. Just watch any R-rated action movie. But this is not always the case. Take ‘The Conjuring,’ for example. This film received an R-rating from the MPAA. Why? Because it’s scary and violent. Yet, there is no hardcore swearing anywhere in the movie, according to the parents’ guide. So to those who think you need this kind of language to appear realistic, let me ask you this—What better time to let off a few f-bombs than when your mother is possessed by a demon? Yet, none are found in ‘The Conjuring,’ and the story still works.

Many of you know I wrote the horror thriller series TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD. At the time, I made a conscious decision not to use certain expletives. Sure, there is some mild cursing but nothing hardcore. And, again, if you’ve read the work, you’ll know that these books are violent as hell. Some may disagree, but I believe I have created a balance that works. In my fictional world, people can find themselves in horrible danger and not swear like merchant marines. And readers can still enjoy a powerful story.

So what are your thoughts?