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I'm working on a psychological thriller. I know that most books in this genre use at least some profanity. But I, myself, don't swear. I never have. Sometimes I let one slip, but other than that I don't swear, and I don't want to include swearing in my novel.

So is there a way to get around this? Are there different words that I can use instead of the regular swear words? I want to create the emotional intensity that would normally be accompanied by swear words, but without having to explicitly use those swear words.

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    Well, you can say things like "He swore savagely" without quoting his words - but it could feel unnatural if the dialogue you do quote never includes any swearing. Apr 4 at 8:30
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    @KateBunting That is good advice and it works well if the swearing is rare and only happens once or twice. Then telling what he does instead of showing his words will even intensify the exceptionality: "He swore savagely, which he never did, and Rose blushed deeply." It will only feel unnatural to say that "he swore savagely" if the character does it constantly. Then hiding the actual words might have an involuntary comic effect.
    – Ben
    Apr 4 at 9:01
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    You can make your characters use minced oaths. Apr 4 at 13:20
  • ...and you could have some fun inventing minced oaths that say something about the character. Apr 4 at 22:26
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    @WeatherVane I'd be careful with that in a thriller - seeing a character who, say, sees their lover murdered go "gosh darn it to heck!" would probably ruin the mood. Apr 5 at 8:30

3 Answers 3

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Seems like you are the ideal consultant for this! How do you deal with emotional intensity without swearing? Just do the same for your characters.

People do not have to curse, they can sob, scream, grimace, gesture, sigh, or be articulate and say extreme things.

You can use euphemisms, as well. You can use implication: "We slept together last night" implies intercourse, you don't have to say "we fucked last night."

Or, finally, realize that every author writes evil characters doing things they would never personally do. I've written about a woman that intentionally killed dozens of people, because she thought it was justified in a greater good. She used any kind of subterfuge to get close to them, including seducing them and having sex with them.

I never have and never will do that, but I think I wrote her character convincingly.

Your story will not be good if every character is just a reflection of you. Realistic characters swear.

That said, if your story is set in fantasy world, you can invent your own swear words, that are not swears in the real modern world. That might be a route to explore.

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    +1, but I don't agree with, "Realistic characters swear", since there are plenty of people who do not, and even sub-cultures where no one swears-there are lots of real people who do not swear, so that there is nothing unrealistic about a character who does not swear. I guess that, in order to have a realistic character that does not swear, the character would need to be the type of person who, in real life, might not swear. This is harder for a villian! Unless you invent a fictional society, where swearing is not part of the culture.
    – Basya
    Apr 4 at 14:01
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    I very much like the last line; I have seen that used quite successfully
    – Basya
    Apr 4 at 14:01
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    @Basya You may be more experienced than I, I have met many people from other cultures, and they all have swear words (and gestures) to call people the equivalent of "bastards", "assholes", to exclaim "shit!", or dismiss people with "fuck off", or similar for something unexpectedly painful like a cut or burn. And the people that don't use homophonic phrases; e.g. "Son of a biscuit!" instead of "Son of a bitch!". Or ancient swears, like "Frig it" instead "Fuck it." So their intent is to swear. My point is that swearing is natural and realistic. At least in every culture I've met.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 4 at 14:29
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    Concerning the fantasy route: In Eoin Colfer's book series "Artemis Fowl", the magical creatures curse saying "D'arvit" with a side note, that it's too vulgar to translate. Apr 5 at 9:59
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First, using swear words is a characteristic of that person. You can well write a novel, even a psychological thriller, about a person who doesn't commonly swear. Not everyone does, and those people go through difficult times, too.

Second, emotional intensity cannot only be expressed through the use of swear words. Indeed, some people swear without being emotional at all! With or without the use of swear words, you will have to create that "heaviness" and intensity in another way: by building up tension in your readers through a suspenseful narrative, by rasing the stakes, by showing how the characters in your story are getting more and more agitated.

Describe what that agitation does to your characters: How does their inner state change? How does their thinking change? How does their behavior change? Observe yourself and the people around you in stessful situations. Look at how other writers do it and learn from them.

In the books I read, there aren't usually any swear words and I don't use them either.

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Prior to the 1960s there was very little (no?) swearing in fiction. You could try reading some detective stories from that period. I'd suggest Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Sayers, and G. K. Chesterton. Comic books tended to use punctuation, e.g. a villain might say "!@#$%" when the hero (who, of course, never swore) hit him.

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