Stephen King is perhaps one of the most outspoken advocates of using foul language in writing. I once attended a lecture given by him in Virginia, just before the release of his blockbuster Misery. He ranted about banned books and censorship (his books had been roundly censored in schools for descriptive vulgar language). He defended his generous pepperings of expletives by noting he was writing about “real” characters, and, quite frankly, real people swear. This is true. And I don’t have any problem with you (or Mr. King) using profanity in your writing. But you must do it judiciously.
I recall having read King’s 1,076 page behemoth Under the Dome. If I hadn’t invested so much time in it, I would have quit half-way through because I got so tired of everyone in his small, fundamentalist town having such a potty mouth. Not because I am offended by such language — but because it’s just not believable. The very thing King claims his use of rough language does–creates believable characters–was the thing I felt his language fell short of doing. It is not believable that nearly every person in a highly religious small town swears profusely, so the story ends up seeming overdone and forced.
I know, I know — who am I to criticize the Master of Horror? A reader, that’s who. And you must consider your readers when choosing colorful invective to add spice (and realism) in your writing. Perhaps your natural inclination is to cuss every time you open your mouth. That’s well and good–some people do this–and I suspect Stephen King is probably one of them. However, not all people speak this way, so neither should all, or even most, of your characters unless you are writing about a specific group that would naturally share this characteristic.
So how should you know when to take the profanity plunge? Here are few quick rules that can help you decide whether or not to let loose.
Know Your Audience
Are you writing a Christian romance or a children’s or young teens’ book? Then perhaps you’d be best served by leaving off the crude talk. Your audience realizes that $**t happens, but they are probably not interested in hearing it.
Make Sure the Crime Fits the Character
If you choose to use profanity or a facsimile thereof, make sure it fits the profile of the character spewing it. A twenty-something thug is not likely to say “dang” and the kindly elderly lady next door is probably not going to drop the f-bomb. Unless there is some compelling reason for your characters to speak, well, out of character, then keep the language appropriate to the person.
Use Sparingly for Best Results
Like any good spice, profanity, crude language, and sexual double entendres are best used sparingly. Yes, Stephen King, we’ve all heard kids whose every other word was an f-bomb and guess what: It makes them hard to understand–even in real life. So if you have a hard-living, hard-swearing baddie in your word pile, let him or her use invective in specific instances for the biggest impact and so you don’t run the risk of irritating your readers with relatively boring streams of cuss words. Remember, a kid whose parent swears constantly learns to tune them out, but when the kid whose parent never cusses drops the f-word, everyone stops and pays attention.
What do you think about profanity? Do you use it in your writing? Why or why not? I’d love to hear!
See you on the next page!