Welcome to my world and beyond...

A collection of snippets of the books I write and, occasionally, my life and the things that inspire my writing...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Censored: Cusswords, the Profane, Vulgar or Downright Base.

As a writer, I am often confronted by the choice to add the "bad" words, or not to add them.  In the real world, I occasionally use them.  I do take my audience and the situation-- professional or casual for instance, into consideration. 

Of late, I have read several discussions about Young Adult fiction and the language it contains.  I think it is a whole other question, though, when we consider books for adults.

I take my approach in the written world, just like in the real world, and consider the target audience and my characters, then determine just how potty mouth they will be. 

I ask this question: Does it serve a purpose? Does it lend believability to the story, or make the character more alive to the reader?  Otherwise, I can leave it out; profanity for the sake of profanity  doesn't work in my writing.  But, I also think of the opinion shared by a good friend and University professor, Cemil Tarhan, that there are times when  profanity is called for; times when it affirms the authenticity of the moment, conveys the harshness of the exchange or thought, truly brings home the anger, incredulity, or even humor in your character's situation.

There are times when no other word suffices, and if you omit the profane, or substitute a lily-white word, your written work is diminished by the censorship you inflict on your story.

There are a couple words that I just don't use when I write. A personal preference? Perhaps. But, mainstream fiction is full of bestsellers whose authors had no such hesitation. 

Let me say here, on my facebook profile, it does list "truckdriver" as  one of the languages I speak...even so, I am keenly aware of context when using  base language in a story.  Sometimes, even though a word might be anatomically correct, it taints my opinion of a story--even my opinion of an author.  And there are times that base words fit. An example of what I mean--Audrey Niffenegger writing in The Time Traveler's Wife  her protagonist after giving birth "...and my cunt hurt."  A book that I thought was pretty good, but would much prefer she had used another term, and have wondered why she made the word choice she did.  After speaking to others, I realize that my reaction to her choosing to use that particular word is not an isolated case.  It has tainted my opinion of her and might even affect my future Niffenegger book purchases.  BUT...in Sarah Gruen's Water For Elephants, when the protagonist said the word, "fuck", it fit, it worked.  I thought it was critical to conveying the emotion of the moment.

I don't think that there is a formula, or a rule of any type to determine word choice. For me, it  comes back to knowing your target audience, and what will be well-received.  And working toward an  impression readers take away from your work--either leaving them with a zeal to read more, or driving them away.

But, <smiling> if any of you have rules by which you govern profanity in your writing, please share.  I never stop trying to learn.

If you  have an opinion-- supporting or counter to my own expressed here, please share your thoughts. 


  1. Great post, Theresa! I have always been a proponent of free speech and use "colourful" words often, usually for emphasis. I consider them to be "just words" and am never offended, but, obviously some people are. This is puzzling to me, because, once again, they are common terms in the English language, which are only MADE bad by the people who think so. Audrey Niffenegger's use of the word "cunt" did seem a little jarring however, because that particular one is normally uttered in a derogatory manner and doesn't really fit the scenario. Nor is it likely that a woman would use the term when describing her own vagina.
    Gratuitous profanity is a cheap way to get attention and even somewhat tacky. A good writer, (and I consider you to be one :-)), uses profanity in a realistic manner, as befitting their character in question.

  2. Oops, sorry! That link at the end was for an anti-censorship image. Guess you can't do that here.
    I'm just learning this site.

  3. Teresa, I need to read your fiction. I like your ideas!! Great choice of words. Regarding profanity, I think some things are better left to the imagination. Why not let the reader figure out the profanity in whatever language it sounds sweeter?? We have to admit that some profane words are not that great in english but in another language they sound sweeter....so creating a symbol or image indicating profanity works for me!!

  4. Profanity. The definition of what profanity is, changes over the years. Nipple used to be a word that one would never hear over the radio, let's say 25 years ago. Nowadays it's a completely different story. Not saying that it is all for the better, but I love my freedom of speach and if I don't want to hear profanity I just don't listen.

  5. Debbie, I agree with your analysis of Audrey Niffenegger's use. It just did not fit the context. Yep "uses profanity in a realistic manner, as befitting their character in question...." Indeed. :-)

    Thank you for taking time to read this post, sharing your knowledge and opinion, and your kind words...I hope I am perceived as a good writer. It is humbling, realizing how much I have learned on the writer's journey. It has made me incredibly aware of just how much I likely do not yet know :-)

  6. Marjaan, thank you for reading this post! You bring up an interesting thing...the "sound" of the profanity, and how "sweet" it can sound in different languages. That could be my issue with certain words...in American English they have such harsh sounds. Nothing pretty, lilting, or melodic about them. I do not speak a second language fluently, so it is a shortcoming on my part. All three of you who have commented here, know numerous languages...which is quite advantageous to perspective when it comes to words. :-) !

  7. Jan, true, so true...some of it may very well be not for the better for society as a whole, but freedom of speech is essential and non-negotiable in my book. It is downright dangerous to draw arbitrary lines on what is allowed and what is not allowed.

    I don't know if you ever saw a show that was on American TV back in the late 70s-- you might have been too young. If you can find it online, it is worth it for a glimpse at a time capsule. It was called "WKRP in Cincinnati". It was a sitcom about a radio station, and all of the people dynamics among the employees. There was a character called called Johnny Fever--a DJ. And he quite often mentioned that he was fired from his great DJ gig in L.A. for saying "booger" on air. I just checked...and the old shows are on Hulu. They were poking fun at what was considered unacceptable by the FCC. Times are a changing (still and always) ;-)

    Thanks for the read :-)