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I am currently writing a science fiction novel. The characters are almost uniformly pirates and/or miners in the asteroid belt.

Having worked in the mining industry, and grown up around mining towns in Western Australia, I am quite well versed in the use of foul language.

The fact is, many people in the mining industry use language which would make a soldier blush continuously. I have known people who are able to fit four swearwords in a six word sentence. Swearwords can almost be used like punctuation.

And pirates, especially those who come from a mining, military or industrial background would likely be comfortable with a level of foul language and general lack of decorum.

In my book so far, I've maybe used an average of two or three swearwords per chapter. Far, far below the levels I've encountered in real life. And I'm aching to include more of the 'creative' combinations of possibly offensive words.

Are the benefits of trying to achieve a realistic pattern of speech, and a level of immersion that suits the environment I've chosen to write about outweighed by the possibility of offending my readers?

Personally, I have no problem with reading books or watching films which include swearwords (numbed to it I guess), but I'm aware that some people might have cause to be offended.

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    An idea. Battlestar Galactica (the original anyway) invented their own swear words. Firefly was written in a future where China and the US merged and all of their swear words were Chinese. If you're doing Sci-Fi, you can opt one of these solutions or simply blank out the swear word and let the reader fill it in. – Thom Dec 21 '15 at 13:58
  • @TheThom For this book, I want the language to be fairly close to the way we speak now. A similar 'industrial realism' style to the first Alien movie. The next book in the same universe will be set several hundred years later, and will address the evolution of language in a fair bit of detail. So I can invent whatever I like for the next one, but I'm after some of the familiarity of the mundane in this one. I did think about BSG and Firefly though, as well as the HBO/BBC series "Rome" (Kak!). I only know a few Chinese swearwords, and I'm pretty sure I make a hash of them. :-) – Smoj Dec 21 '15 at 14:57
  • Anyway, thanks for all your answers. In hindsight it was not the greatest question, just something that was bugging me. I think I'll throw a number of crusty words in, but keep many of the crustiest ones to myself. Trying to add to the story, rather than take the focus away from it. – Smoj Dec 21 '15 at 15:17
  • One thing I've noticed so far, is that there are a number of different attitudes expressed here on this topic. All valid in different ways. And quite illuminating in their variety. – Smoj Dec 22 '15 at 11:10
  • In answer to specifically "Are there benefits ...", entertainers for decades have used swearing for comedic purposes. Also, it doesn't just have to be for realism. Sometimes a properly timed bit of profanity can shift the focus away from melodrama (assuming you want drama without the melo-). For instance, "Mr. Stu, your wife is dead." And I responded, "What the fu-k are you talking about?" – Stu W Dec 26 '15 at 0:22
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Write the story you want to write. Some people will take offense. That's okay.

Read any chapter of Game of Thrones that has an adult viewpoint character.

Watch any episode of Deadwood.

Some people will take offense. That's okay.

  • Haven't read Game of Thrones (I'm probably the only one), but point taken with Deadwood. If I used language the way we use it in mining, I'd probably end up offending myself. My concern is that I understand that some American audiences can be a little more conservative, so I'd like to find a balance that is suitable for all. Difficult without compromise, I know... – Smoj Dec 19 '15 at 7:27
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    Write the one where you offend yourself. You'll have way more fun. You'll write a much better story. You'll gain more readers than you lose. – Dale Hartley Emery Dec 19 '15 at 17:54
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    Some people will take offense to anything you write anyways. If you write to please everyone, you'll please far fewer than if you write to be realistic and true to your story. A compelling story usually challenges a person's world view and beliefs anyways. – phyrfox Dec 19 '15 at 18:04
  • One of the best things about Deadwood is that they knew the religious-based profanities ('zounds! geez! What the Devil are you on about?) sound really tame to the 2005 audience, so they used modern sexual-based and anatomical profanities to get the same "vibe". – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Mar 7 at 22:30
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Swearing can be tricky and in general it's not a great idea to over use it. However, I think that if you do it in context and use it sparingly then there isn't a problem with it.

The opening line of the book, "The Martian," uses the F word, and it's not having any problems with sales and was turned into a movie, but you should be aware that by including swear words in your work, you're going to limit your audience to some degree.

Another problem you might run into by including cursing is if your over use of it becomes so annoying to the reader that they are pulled mentally out of the story, then they'll be unlikely to recommend your book to friends. That's not what you want. A good way to find out if you've gone over the line is by getting a good cross section of people to be your beta readers. Find out what they think. Not everyone will like it, but if the majority think there's no problem, then you're probably OK.

And don't forget, even Tolkien used swear words in "The Lord of the Rings" when he had the orcs say the word, "garn."

  • I guess it's all about balance. I'm concerned about alienating an audience. On the other hand, part of me is thinking "Toughen up, Princess". Of course some people will see the swearing as somehow giving the characters some street cred. Just wondering where that line can be drawn. – Smoj Dec 19 '15 at 7:19
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    In the 1600s and 1700s, the worst thing a pirate could have possibly said would have been either "hell" or "damn". Those two words alone were considered as seriously nasty swear words. – Smoj Dec 19 '15 at 7:22
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    @Smoj, good point. The fact that what constitutes the most offensive swearing changes over the centuries allows you a possible way out of your dilemma, depending on how far in the future your book is set. Have the characters swear in ways that are deeply offensive in their culture but not in ours. You have to make up curse words or phrases carefully to avoid sounding silly, but it can be done. The "future" swearing would be mixed in with some more familiar types of swearing, as reference to sex and excrement has been a form of cursing in the West for millennia. – Lostinfrance Dec 19 '15 at 9:03
  • @Lostinfrance I thought about reinventing the old favourites... The meaning of the graffiti found on the ancient walls of Pompeii isn't really any different to the vulgarities of today. Bodily functions and predictably selected anatomical parts will probably be the same source of ammunition for people in the future. I do want my novel to convey a sense of familiarity with current times though, a sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same. – Smoj Dec 19 '15 at 11:58
  • @Lostinfrance I thought the original "Battlestar Gallacta" series was rather clever about this. The characters are supposed to be from a culture far from Earth. And so the writers invented swear words like "frak" and "faldercarb". It struck me that viewers could interpret these words as being as mild or offensive as they were comfortable with and as fitted their conception of the characters. One person might interpret "faldercarb" as being equivalent to "bummer man", another to the F-word. – Jay Dec 24 '15 at 3:42
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Look at your characters. If they are people who are likely to swear then to strip them of that is to make your characters less realistic.

Look at the scenes you're creating, if you're writing the conversation between a group of mid-twenties guys in a bar, it would be strange if they didn't swear.

Obviously your perceived audience comes into that, if you're writing a children's book, then you probably shouldn't!

But if you're putting your audience's reactions before what your gut is telling you about your characters then the end result is going to feel like you have watered down your own emotions for it.

Write the characters you want, with the language they would use. It is the only way to write well.

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The first thing you must consider, is your own vocabulary. In order for the swearing to SEEM natural, you must be totally comfortable with your own use of curse-words!

Otherwise, it's akin to Mark Twain's observations on a spinster's "cursing": You'll know the lyrics, but not the tune!

I've known women authors who were excellent word-smiths; but only one who had been able to "write cussing" in a believable manner. I later found that she was the big sister of four brothers, and had a father who'd been an Army drill instructor!

If she was in control of her temper, she was a perfect "Lady;" but if Little Brother pushed her buttons just right, she could cuss so savagely and expertly her words could burn the paint off a Patton tank at 100 yards!

There's quite often a rhythm and cadence seen in the expert use of swear-words--- they are USUALLY not merely stuffed into a sentence, every so often. I've known some (rare) "Blue Linguists" who could fluently blend expletives into whole and complete "Profane Paragraphs" which had explored the author's views of some wayward miscreant in exquisite, albeit profane, detail . . . often spanning more than two dozen different profane allusions, with no repeats!

The old-timers would say of such monumental "cursings," something like: "John cussed him 'till a fly wouldn't light on him!" Memories of the exquisite, intricate, detailed array of expletives would be cherished and memorized, and men would gather to relive the events leading up to the "Cursing!" Each "compound expletive" would be recalled in detail, often arguments would arise as to which curse came before, or after, a particularly monumental "Exotic Expletive," and men would stand the "orator" to drinks; some would even beg him to reprise his triumphal declarative, albeit profane, monologue. On at least half the occasions of such "declarations," the object of the diatribe had actually left town, rather than be continually reminded of the "cursing!"

I am actually very hesitant to repeat one of these profane orations, here; even if it's "for educational purposes only!"

If you are competent to "rip off a good Goddamn," with feelings of gusto and all the attendant ruffles & flourishes, then go ahead! Use profanity! Your story will be the better for your true-to-life language!

However: If your upbringing and demeanor are such that you don't normally use profanity, attempting to camouflage that by having characters declare: "Puck, puck, puck," in every sentence; it simply won't work. It won't seem to be authentic.

  • Absolutely! I've heard it said that a person only swears when they don't have a vocabulary, but I think that there can be an art to it. As a kid, I grew up in a number of old school Australian country towns where there was huge creativity in the way you could insult someone without malice. And the person being insulted would then have to come back at them with something even more creative. These days, in Australia at least, we've almost lost that art. It was a form of poetry, the creativity of crassness. And you're right. It can be hard to capture it authentically on a page. – Smoj Dec 22 '15 at 11:04
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Any reader perverse enough to read 50 Shades of Grey can handle more than a few swear words. Apparently, there's about 100 million of them.

  • Fair call. Although I'm probably going for a slightly different audience... In the end, I'm writing a book I'd like to read, but I'd also like an audience wider than one (Unless I buy all of the copies of it myself)... – Smoj Dec 21 '15 at 15:10
  • My last book, which didn't win any awards but did ok, had about 100 swear words--a chef was one of the main characters ... I'm currently taking on a historical fiction project about a tyrant, more or less. My options for presentation of the "protagonist" was as a sociopath or as a psychologically disintegrating buffoon. I chose buffoon. I didn't even get through the first page ... – Stu W Dec 22 '15 at 3:18
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David Williamson wrote a play called 'The Club'. It used swearing. However, a theatre group that came to the school where I was teaching said they could do it without the swearing if we wanted. We wanted. It was just as effective, when acted, without the swearing, as anything we could imagine from the version that used swearing.

Robert Swindells, in his novel 'Stone Cold' about homelessness, mimics the language of deprived people without using a word that is considered a swear word. He uses other words, I think one is 'frigging', to effectively imitate without offending.

Personally, I found Roddy Doyle's 'The Commitments' really hard to read out loud because of all the obscenities. Yes, people might speak like that, but art doesn't have to mimic reality. Instead it selects, mediates, edits and enhances reality for the enjoyment, edification, etc. of the audience.

'The White Tiger' (a Booker Prize Winner and so, by definition, by several people considered very well written) uses swearing, of a reasonably extreme type, very rarely and very effectively. The narrator swears and laughs, or one of the characters swears and laughs, and the reader laughs.

  • I honestly cannot imagine "The Club" being quite the same without the swearing. But then again, many people can't imagine a Shakespearian play translating well into a modern setting. But it can definitely work It can also fail miserably too). All in the way it's done. That's why writing (and acting), are considered an art. – Smoj Dec 22 '15 at 11:25
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That would depend on the audience. If you are writing for a certain age group, consider that. If you are a writing a book hoping that it will reach a lot of different ages, or types of people, consider that too. If you are going to publish a book, I would think the idea is to gain a lot of readers who enjoy your work, but also make enough sales that you can hopefully live off the things you write. So if you are going to write things that are going to be offensive to people, it might have a negative impact on possible sales, or such. I like what Tave says about how a play with cursing is just as affective with-out cursing. It would depend on what you are trying to achieve. You can chose to focus on the story more. If that's what you want. Cause it is your book, in the end.

Example : I also read aloud, and just recently read the entire book "Paper Towns" by John Green to a friend. There is cursing & profanity in the book. (I edited those things out the best I could.) It was realist. The book was good. But I feel books can be either.

  1. draining to read : Where it gives you a yucky type of feeling, sort of like a bad after taste.

  2. "uplifting" or more thoughtful, and leaves you with a better feeling.

Paper Towns was a good read, but I think it had a Type 1. effect. Nothing is all coming up roses of course, but I feel the message of the story could be just as affective with-out that bad-after taste feeling.

A message of a story can be just as tragic, sorrowful, deep, & powerful with-out cursing. I think one form of mastering writing is being able to write realistically but doesn't mimic reality. I read to escape the world Im in. Which for the most part is negative, in some points of view.

I would recommend being tasteful. You can make the most 'immoral' characters realistic, in a way that is effective, but doesn't take away from the story.

If you write in a way that doesn't often offend people, you will have twice the amount of readers. Of course anything you say can be offensive to people. So yes, write despite that, but keep in mind that people might have ('good') reasons that they are offended about something. But there are also petty reasons too. Balance is key.

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    In the same way that objectivity in journalism is impossible, so is being realistic as an author. The very nature of choosing which words to put on a page defeats the reality of what you are trying to describe. At best, you can be successful in the illusion. As you say, balance is the key. – Smoj Dec 22 '15 at 11:19
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    Yes, make sure a story is realistic is important. I've have googled the strangest things to research for the book Im writing! From having a sociopath character who feels nothing at all, fashion my characters might wear, to how my characters might talk, to medical terms. It's crazy sometimes, but if I don't research, (seeing it's a fictional story set in modern times) Some one is going to point out how unrealistic it it. – Livi Brooke Dec 30 '15 at 15:57
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Relating to the common adage that persons with inadequate "social vocabularies" will "resort to cursing," I feel it necessary to point out that "Tourette's syndrome" manifests in uncontrollable cursing . . . ALTHOUGH it is now recognized that victims of strokes affecting portions of the frontal lobes of the brain can also begin "adulterating conversations with cursing." This can often be acutely unsettling to the victims!

I am aware of a Protestant Bishop who felt he had to resign from his church position because of his new-found "potty-mouth;" an English Professor with an IQ in excess of 150 had also felt she had to resign from Academia when a comparatively mild frontal-lobe stroke set her to swearing like a Stevedore; and I am very familiar with several other, similar, cases in addition.

It has become a very glib, even mean-spirited, put-down; although it definitely not the case that only "very intellectually-challenged persons" indulge in cursing. With the aging of the population proceeding apace, the stroke-related cursing will definitely increase . . . perhaps even becoming somewhat common throughout the population!

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People have brought up this question in several other writer's forums that I've been on. From all the answers posted here, apparently the question interests many writers.

Whenever I hear the question, I always think of a comment I once read from film critic Michael Medved. He said, "I've never heard anyone say, That could have been a good movie, but they just didn't use the F word enough." (Not necessarily an exact quote -- I'm quoting from memory.)

That is: What's the downside to using swear words? Some number of potential readers will not want to read your book. You will lose some share of your potential audience.

What's the upside? It may add some realism.

One could certainly imagine a story that sanitizes language to the point that it is completely unbelievable. Suppose you have a story where the vicious drug dealer discovers that one of the members of his gang has sold him out to the police or a rival gang. And he confronts the man and says, "You silly person! Why are you so mean to me?" Obviously that would not be very believable. In real life he would almost surely use a string of profanity. But still, if in a book or movie such a character said, "You moron! You're gonna die for this!", it wouldn't sound unbelievable. How many members of the audience would really be thinking to themselves, Whoa, wouldn't he have used the F word at least once in that sentence? Very few, I'd think.

Personally, I don't like vulgar language. I hear it from my co-workers every day, and more and more I hear it on television every day, so it's not like when I hear a bad word I turn red and faint. But I don't like it. If I'm reading a book or watching a movie that I find interesting, and every now and then a character uses a vulgar word in contexts where people really would, I put up with it. But when I start reading a book and every third word is a vulgarity, I generally throw the book away and read something else. I consider vulgarity unpleasant and I'm not going to subject myself to it when I am seeking entertainment. I have to put up with it when dealing with people at work, but I don't have to put up with it when reading a novel. So I don't.

Obviously, there are people who are not offended by vulgar language, or who are more willing to tolerate it.

But this takes us back to Mr Medved's comment: How many people will decide they don't want to read a book because it contains too much vulgar language? Many. How many people will decide they don't want to read a book because it doesn't contain enough vulgar language? Very few. Some might say, "This is just too unrealistic, nobody I know talks like that." But I think that's a tiny minority.

So in my humble opinion, you're better off using little or no vulgarity.

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    The questions has certainly brought a wide range of views. I think that part of the value of swearing in a book or a film is that it can elicit a shock response which can reinforce the emotional reaction to a situation. But with overuse, that effect diminishes. The F bomb has been used so often these days that it has much less of an effect than it might have had in the 1950s for example. The C bomb still has that effect, but is exceptionally offensive to many people, well past the level of 'healthy' shock it provokes. – Smoj Dec 24 '15 at 4:15
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    @Smoj I agree. As you say, deliberate shock value has diminishing returns: the more it's done, the less effective it becomes. Then you have to ratchet up to the next higher level of shock value. This has the potential to seriously date your work: If society as a whole moves toward accepting higher levels of vulgarity as "normal", then what is shocking today will be humdrum in a few years. If society moves toward more stricter standards, then what was an entertaining level of shock today will be over the top offensive in a few years. Note societies regularly go back and forth on such things. – Jay Dec 24 '15 at 4:33

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