What the Bleep!

I suppose this could also be considered another “Behind the Scenes” featurette of The Making of The Penitent Assassin because while sharing the book in its earlier stages with readers in my various writer’s groups the topic of language came up a few times. Specifically, the use of coarse language and whether it should be used or not. I’ve also had this discussion with various people online in writer’s forums. Some were for its use, others were not. I respect both viewpoints and at different times in my life I shared both view points. (I’ll explain what changed my mind at the end).

Currently, my position is, if the coarse words serve a purpose, like any other word in a novel, then I will use it. I wrote about this in a reply to a post on another blog, but I wanted to share part of that reply here.

“In my mind,” I wrote, “the ‘obscene’ words are just another tool to help create a more complete picture of a character. For example, there’s a big difference between a character who smashes his thumb and blurts out an F-bomb vs a character who cries, “Oh, Fudgecycle.” I wouldn’t say either is necessarily ‘wrong’ however, depending on the style, theme and intent of any given piece generally only one or the other characterization will work effectively.

“In the novel I recently published, (The Penitent Assassin) the ‘hero’ (Mallor) rarely curses, however, the city he calls home has fallen far into decay and with it so has its citizens. Many have devolved into vile, sinful examples of humanity and the hero is forced to deal with them often times on a low-level. I felt that this coarse language suited these ‘villains’ because an elevated more elegant dialogue would have sounded false coming out of their mouths.

“I further felt it was important to be true to the nature of these characters even if it meant having to use impolite language, because-to use your glass of water analogy from above-(I’ll explain this at the end)-if I had served up this gallery of wicked characters and then made them sound false because I didn’t want to use ‘obscene’ language, that ‘falseness’, not the language itself, would have been the added sewage on top.

“That being said, I’ll take the water analogy one step further and suggest that like the variety of fantasy novels in existence there are a variety of flavored waters too and each of us are simply trying to find the flavor(s) we find most appealing. Some will suit us quite well. Others not so much.”

The glass of water analogy was used to describe a situation of something being ‘good, but’. Such as a novel might have been good, but the coarse language made it less so (the coarse language being the added sewage on top). Would a glass of clean water still be good with the added sewage? I think it is a valid statement arguing against the use of coarse language, however, as you read above, I felt the ‘added sewage’ would have been making the characters sound false rather than the actual obscene language.

And that I guess is the bottom line for me. Making the characters real. Making them true to themselves. If they would use coarse language, I can’t shy away from using it in my books because then the characters will not be real. They will be an edited version of themselves. Like watching an edited version of a movie on TV. I’m sure you know what I mean. You’ll be watching a Robert De Niro movie, or a Clint Eastwood movie etc. and suddenly a slightly altered voice will dub over the coarse language with a less-offensive (and often times humorous) replacement.

“Shucks! You gosh-darned mudder thumpers. What the heck are you flipping doing over there, blowing bubbles?”

Yes, I took that a bit to an extreme (though there are a handful of movies I’ve watched on TV where the over-dubs are hilarious!) but my point is (Aha! I knew we’d have a ‘my point is’ somewhere in this post!) when you hear these on TV aren’t you temporarily pulled out of the scene? You realize that character would NEVER have said ‘gosh-darned mudder thumpers’. It’s not ‘real’. It’s not ‘true’ and that’s what I’m hoping to achieve when I tell my stories. Real, true characters…even if they only exist in a fantasy world.

‘But,’ some of the people in my writer’s group have argued, ‘if you didn’t write such characters then you wouldn’t have to write that kind of language. You’re the one choosing to write these foul-mouthed characters.’

Yes, I am. But I felt that these characters were appropriate for the story I was trying to tell.

‘But, why don’t you write a different kind of story? A story without those kinds of characters…’

Why does any author write anything at all? Because that’s the story that most wanted out of my head. And at that point I usually turn the question back around and politely ask them why they write what they do. Why don’t they write something else?

Now, am I saying you have to write this way? No. Am I saying you have to read what I’ve written? No. For me, these words are objectionable in polite conversation, but in novels, they are tools to be used and hopefully I’ve used them properly and achieved the desired effect. Hopefully, the characters in my book who needed to be vile and weak and sinful and despicable seem that way because that is the unfortunate world my ‘hero’ finds himself in.

‘But using that kind of language only proves an author is being lazy…’

Perhaps. Perhaps some authors use this language to an extreme. Perhaps they use it as a crutch for characterization. That was not my intent. I wanted to use it as an example of how far the city and its inhabitants had fallen. I wanted the level of the language use to separate my hero from my villains. And the very few instances where my hero curses, I wanted it to be only at times when he was most devastated by the events around him and incapable of maintaining that higher level of control himself.

I wouldn’t call that being lazy. I’d call it being deliberate.

Now…why did I change my mind about the use of such langauge? 

Most of my adult life I’ve worked among the public and for a portion of it I worked for police departments. I started out as a 911, police, fire emergency dispatcher. After that, I was a Community Service Officer. I dealt with people in a crisis. I dealt with people usually on their worst days. And in some sad cases, I worked with them on their last day on Earth. Their language was often not of the polite kind. Sometimes their langauge was quite vicious. I’ve talked to murderers. Sometimes their words were the least chilling thing about them. These experiences are what helped change my mind about using coarse language in my books. Editing them out would have made the experiences I wanted my hero to encounter ring hollow.

And I just won’t do that if I can help it.

Thank you for staying with me until the end. I hope you all have a wonderful day.


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About inkcompetentwriter

Author of The Penitent Assassin and The Rush of Betrayal duology available at Amazon.com and Smashwords.com.

10 responses to “What the Bleep!”

  1. deshipley says :

    I have a number of characters who don’t share their author’s sensibilities when it comes to language. As you noted, turning all their colorful exclamations to “oh, darnsky!” would ring wholly false, which I wholeheartedly want to avoid. On the other hand, I also prefer to avoid including words in my writing that I’m uncomfortable hearing/reading/saying.
    My usual compromise: When feasible, leave the language to the readers’ imagination. Slip out of dialogue for a moment and drop in some narration that gets the point across. This could range from basic (“Jack swore”) to more elaborate (“Had Jack’s art teacher chanced to hear the combination of expletives that followed this latest frustration, she would have taken back everything she ever said about her student’s lack of creativity”).
    Storytelling is basically deciding which details to include and how to show them. If an author is uncomfortable showing a character’s propensity for profanity in one way, then the author has the liberty to give him/herself creative options to get around the issue without comprising character intergrity. Reason number X why I love writing. (:

    • inkcompetentwriter says :

      I agree that authors have a wide range of creative options when it comes to how to include details regarding characterization. The key phrase for me though is ‘when feasible’. If I were writing a YA or MG fantasy novel, of course I would have altered or toned down my approach to using strong language as a means to describe some of the villainous characters’ dialogue (or perhaps I would have simply written a different story). I might have used a method similar to your two examples, though I feel they are a bit more ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. However, The Penitent Assassin is an adult fantasy novel with, at it’s heart, a grim story.

      The main character, Mallor, is the sole survivor of genocide. He is constantly hunted by an assortment of wicked characters who want nothing more than to see him dead. He is motivated solely by revenge until he learns he has a daughter–but at the same time he learns this, he also discovers she’s been kidnapped by the mastermind behind the genocide, a sadistic person not known for mercy. The city he lives in used to be ruled over by members of his race, but after their annihilation, it has devolved into a cesspool of sin and immoral behavior with the decay increasing greatly during the past five years since unless he can stop it, the city will be pulled literally into hell–and not the fire and brimstone kind of hell we know, but rather a torturous cold, wet hell where the dead suffer in a constant state of drowning. This grim, noir-like world is stark and cold and thus I felt the language of its people would reflect that. Now, is every other word out of all of their mouths coarse? No, absolutely not, however, in the case of this novel, it wouldn’t have been ‘feasible’ (at least in my mind) to have written around the coarse language.

      That being said, I understand entirely why some people choose to avoid such language and in most cases so do I. Perhaps I’ll even include a new blog post about the very first time I had to swear in public sometime soon….

      And I’m fairly certain it’s not at all why you would think.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I appreciate the discussion.

  2. deshipley says :

    Not to sound like a creepy spammer, Mr. Ink-Competent, but there is a lovely, good news surprise for you over at my blog. Congratulations in advance. 😀

  3. Rebecca says :

    I like this post! Most of my work is otherworld based, so I don’t have to bother with the standard expletives and have waxed creative in that regard when necessary 😉 but I’m also working on a modern dark fantasy (or urban fic) and some character’s have very foul mouths. (a few are based on real life dialog I overheard while waiting around for public transit, for example..lol) I choose not to sugarcoat or censor my characters at all, and with that in mind I always mention (or will) that the content is going to be for mature readers 😉 or not for those easily offended. If it bothers anyone, they can stop reading or watching the movie. As someone not opposed to foul language on a personal level – (I normally reserve it for when I’m peeved or repeating something I overheard ;-)) when it gets excessive (aka gratuitous) I simply change the channel or close the book/turn off the volume.

  4. caelascreator says :

    I think coarse language has a place in certain genres, certain scenes. I also think that it can make for some very colorful and readable dialogue, in the right setting much like you’ve said. Of course, I’m Irish and a Texan, cursing for us is an art form and a way of life. I don’t think it makes a person lazy or even ignorant… unless it’s done for shock value.

    • inkcompetentwriter says :

      Thank you for your comments. Irish and Texan? What a verbally lethal combination! Dare I ask if you’re a redhead too? 🙂
      My point has been that as long as the coarse language is written with a purpose in mind, and not merely for ‘shock value’, it is a valid way to reveal character. And in my book, The Penitent Assassin, while the coarse language is present, I don’t feel it is overly done. It’s not like every other word spilling out of even the most foul of the villains is coarse. I use it as an example of how the city’s inhabitants have devolved into sinful, morally bankrupt characters.

      Good luck with your own writing and please visit again.

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