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Should your f#%king characters swear?

March 11, 2011

Photo of an angry young man

In the opening paragraph of John Marsden’s young adult novel Tomorrow When the War Began, Ellie, the teenaged main character, is trying to write down the story to come.  She is not religious or a goody-goody or anymore a school girl.  In fact, she’s a stressed-out rebel outcast who has ditched all authority in her life.  Surrounded by her teenaged mates who are jostling and annoying her, she says, ‘Rack off guys!’

Now, I ask you, is that realistic?

I love John Marsden’s book with a passion, but the total lack of swearing doesn’t work for me.  I know plenty of people like Ellie (I mean teenagers, not guerrillas).  They all swear – maybe not in front of their grandmothers, but on their own and with their friends, and particularly when under stress.  I too swear every day of my life and have done since I was younger than Ellie.  I know I’m not alone in this.

Swearing is not a lazy way of being angry.

It’s learned as part of developing a grown-up language.  It’s about being fluent.  It’s about casual and easy communication.  It’s about being in control, being independent of authority figures – particularly parents – who tell you how to speak.  It’s normal, it’s a habit.  And some people swear a lot, because of their upbringing, their circumstances or their personality.  Yes, there are other inventive ways to abuse people, and express anger, fear, delight or pain.  Swearing is not instead of but in addition to these ways.

And who says it’s offensive?

There’s a big question here about the morality of disallowing swearing and the constraints on culture when certain words are taboo or even defined as offensive.  Look at who is being suppressed, and by whom.

As for stamping out or even keeping in check undesirable behaviour…

Radio stations forbid swearing on air, but shock jocks still manage to, uh, shock people.  Unruly louts cower everyone in the train carriage by yelling out, ‘Cunts!’  Would it actually be any better if they yelled, ‘Vaginas!’? And do we really violate children by telling ‘shit’ instead of ‘poop’ jokes?  Only when those children have been taught that ‘shit’ is a baaaad word, surely.  When The Little Red School Book came out in 1969, my sister stole our copy from home and brought it to school to share under the desks.  Everyone tittered over the similes for ‘penis’.  That frisson was exactly what the ban-the-book campaigners wanted to prevent, but they would have had more success by introducing ‘dick’ and ‘cock’ into their own speech.  Then we would have known that swearing was uncool.

So what does this mean for your fictional characters?

Are you going to give them authentic voices or shush them as if you’re a school librarian?  Because if they always have to be on their best behaviour, you’re never going to see their real selves, just as you wouldn’t see their real selves in real life.  So let them swear – it’s natural!  Or more importantly, if your characters are the swearing types, it could sound unnatural if they don’t swear.

‘Darn it, Mac!  You left the flipping gun in the truck.  You’re such a so-and-so!’

‘Oh poo, Robbo!  It wasn’t my blasted job to bring the silly gun, you dingbat!’

In my novel Wombat Blues, a tale told by a modern Australian teenage guy beset by troubles, my favourite line comes at the end of a long day when he’s hit rock bottom.  He simply says, ‘Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.’  Totally sums it up, in my opinion.

But perhaps you don’t buy my arguments for swearing.

Still shaking your head?  ‘I may not be the school librarian,’ I hear you say, ‘but I want to get my fucking novel into school libraries, so it’s got to pass the bloody librarians, doesn’t it?’

Okay, okay.  So here are some creative alternatives.Captain Haddock Anger Management Lessons

  • Pretend swearing: ‘Billions of blue blistering barnacles in a thundering typhoon!’

This is a great one for the kiddies and the kiddies-at-heart (and the librarians).  Tintin, the famous boy reporter created by Hergé, has a best friend called Captain Haddock, an old sea dog who’s picked up the lingo.  He loses his temper easily and loudly and says things like, ‘Who’s the thundering son of a sea-gherkin who did that?’  You just know what the translation would be in a Hollywood action film.

  • Made-up words: ‘You puggin mother-pugger!’

Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country is a novel about Aboriginal Australia.  It’s an authentic and incendiary story about an unhappy period of Australian history when children were taken from their mothers simply for being ‘half-caste’.  Herbert, who had worked in a ‘half-caste home’, wrote from deep personal experience about his huge cast of characters, and it shows.  But nowhere in 1,500 pages does he use the ‘f’ word.  It doesn’t seem to matter.  Once you hear it a few times, you forget that he made up ‘pugging’ as an alternative.  Whenever I read this book, I go around for weeks afterwards being misunderstood.  (‘Who left the pugging milk out of the fridge?’  ‘What?’)

  • Masked words: ‘effing’, ‘adjectival’

This is Peter Carey’s choice in True History of the Kelly Gang.  Carey wrote his novel in Ned Kelly’s voice, and as all Australians know, Ned hated troopers but would have sworn like one.  Still, Carey brought Ned to life without having him swear.  He did it by giving the semi-literate bushranger the task of winning over his gentle readers with respect as well as honesty.  Ned’s story is blunt and brutal, but he will not stoop to crudeness.  There is power and, at the same time, restraint in the language.  ‘It is death by hanging you little eff.’ ‘O Christ said he can’t a man eat his adjectival tea.’

(By the way, am I the only one who thought it was weird when Uncle Vernon muttered, ‘Enough – effing – owls’ in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?  After four long books, she finally made a character swear, and Uncle Vernon of all people…  )


Angry young man, by Frederic Dupont

Captain Haddock Anger Management Lessons, Ivan Rojas Reyes

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tricia Bertram permalink
    March 11, 2011 8:28 am

    Fran I couldn’t agree more. I never understand why it’s OK in the TV show Father Ted for the priests to say Feck off constantly, when we all know they mean Fuck off – just doesn’t make any sense to me.
    And as a side bar the word Fuck came into being as an abbreviation for the criminal charge of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.

  2. March 18, 2011 5:23 pm

    Fran, I understand the argument for “realism” and all that, but *all* teenagers do not swear. I know a lot of teenagers, and some do and some don’t. Same was true when I was a teenager myself. I know lots of adults who don’t swear. I think any character can express any emotion, even intense anger, realistically enough without swearing–in the hands of a good writer. A weak writer might end up with some really weak “faux swearing,” but a good writer should be able to manage it in a way that doesn’t come across as just plain silly (Marge Simpson: “this gosh-forsaken heckhole”) One doesn’t have to be “religious or a goody-goody or not anymore a school girl” to prefer books and movies that are not bombarding one with swearing when there are plenty of other words to be used. My father was a swearer, but he never used the more “offensive” words, even when so angry I thought he was going to burst a blood vessel. So … if so volatile a man, one not averse to swearing, can have a full-on angry blow-out without using those words that earn an “R” rating, then surely any character in any book or movie can as well.

  3. March 20, 2011 10:44 pm

    Yes, Jean. I think the point is that the character’s language should be true to them – and that depends on lots of things, including their culture. Would you agree?


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