I recently finished reading Stardust and it got me to thinking about one little part of my novel that I’ve struggled to decide what to do with: Swearing. Stardust is, in Neil Gaiman’s own words, an adult fairy tale and using words like “fuck”, “bitch”, and “bastard” make that clear. However, the film adaptation removed every inch of that and cleaned the narrative up to be suitable for a PG rating. When I was younger I was pretty innocent and really didn’t come across or pay attention to swear words until I was eleven or twelve and a lot of that was due to the media I consumed. Nowadays, even 12A films like Star Trek Beyond feature a few swear words (“horseshit” comes up about two or three times in quick succession and there’s more than a few uses of “crap” and “bastards”.) all of which comes under ‘mild bad language’ according to the BBFC. When looking at the BBFC’s current ratings guidelines, to achieve a ‘U’ there must be “infrequent use only of very mild bad language”, for a PG there must be “mild bad language only” which should not be aggressive or very frequent, for a 12A/12 “there may be moderate language. Strong language may be permitted, depending on the manner in which it is used, who is using the language, its frequency within the work as a whole and any special contextual justification,” and anything above that allows “strong language” though once again this relies on the manner in which it is used and its frequency. That’s why Edgar Wright’s The World’s End can use the word “cunt” three or four times and still get a 15, purely because of the context of how it is used. Obviously I don’t intend to use anything near as strong in my novel, but there is a major question of whether or not I should use swearing, exactly what my target audience is and whether it is suitable, and also the context of any swearing used.
When I wrote my original version all those years ago I included one “shit” and two instances of “fuck” if my memory serves me correctly, all in instances of high tension, but the “shit” as a statement of shock and the “fuck”s as part of the victory cry at the end of a battle. At the time I was happy with this as the “fuck”s were a reference to one of my favourite lines in Bayonetta, “Don’t fuck with a witch.” However, now, I’m not sure it works. The characters are just a little too squeaky clean to have swear words come out eloquently from their mouths. In the current version, I’ve got around the issue by saying characters “curse loudly” or something to that effect as while it conveys the same situation, it doesn’t feel quite so wrong. I think part of this is due to the medieval romance/JRPG style of the narrative and therefore the dialogue. Look through every medieval romance available and you’re unlikely to find any of the knights using swear words. Look through pretty much every JRPG and while you may get the odd ‘bastard’ or ‘crap’, they generally don’t get any stronger than that. Part of this is due to the style of dialogue used, as they tend to be in a grander mode than we normally speak in. My characters do move against that mode of speaking but swear words don’t quite feel right in their mouths, at least not at present.
One of the best lines in the Harry Potter Franchise!
But what if my audience is expecting it? I’ve always seen this novel as being a Young Adult novel, and someone who has read about half of my book so far agrees with that assessment of 14 to early 20 year olds as being the primary target audience. At that age, swearing is relatively common-place (and while you may not expect it of me, I can be very sweary when I’m annoyed, so there’s a lot of moans of “oh for fuck’s sake” when things decide to go wrong), so I could certainly get away with it in my book if I wanted to. But if I can do it, the question returns to should I? There’s already quite a lot of violence and fighting taking place in the book, so do I really want to make things more adult by the inclusion of swearing? At present, I’m quite fond of having an innocence of language in dialogue while the fights take on a more mature tone. Having the contrast means yet another duality being woven into the fabric of my novel, and I love it when you have elements like that. Not everyone may appreciate it, but I do and to be fair, that’s what is most important right now anyway.
Swearing can be used in many different ways even in the same film, like The Wolf of Wall Street which is probably one of the sweariest movies ever.
At this point, I’ve pretty much argued myself down from using swear words but I might as well take the post to its conclusion in terms of context. There are two types of swearers in the world: those that swear only in moments of aggression or frustration and those that swear all the time no matter the situation. Apparently, there are also five different functions for swearing: Abusive, Cathartic, Dysphemistic, Emphatic, and Idiomatic. Abusive would cover something like “bitch” being used during a scene of domestic abuse or anything that is unnecessarily cruel or violent, Cathartic swearing does what it says on the tin in just purging negative emotions by yelling it out of you, Dysphemistic is swearing for the purpose of being offensive or to be insulting (“he’s a prick” or racial/homophobic terms fall under this), Emphatic is also what it says on the tin in being used to place emphasis on something (“that was fucking awful”), and Idiomatic swearing is anything that is part of an everyday idiom (“That’s the shit”, “It’s the dog’s bollocks”, “shooting the shit” and so on). Now, none of my characters in this novel would make use of idiomatic swearing or emphatic swearing, nor do I want them to participate in abusive or dysphemistic swearing as that would turn them into unsavoury and unlikeable characters. Which mean that should swearing ever make it into my novel it needs to be cathartic and if necessary emphatic in nature as they are the only uses of profanity that would ever fit. Thankfully, this means that should I change my mind from avoiding swearing right now, I do have an alley I can use to introduce it.
It’s a small thing, but the decision of how your characters speak and the terms they use is an important one as it is part of what shows off the tone of a novel. Clearly I’m still not one-hundred-percent sure about how I’m dealing with the situation but having given it a bit more thought has been helpful. In the meantime, here is some of the wonderful colourful swearing of Malcolm Tucker because how else can you end an article on swearing?