Being a Better Writer: Language

This post was originally written and posted August 18th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Still off the grid in Alaska. This post was uploaded ahead of time for your viewing pleasure.

I expect that many of you upon reading this title expect something quite different than what you’re about to view. Perhaps a bit of a treatise on the use of various types of language, or on the origins of language, or even on the syntax and verbal tics of characters.

Actually, that last one isn’t a bad idea, but I’ve talked about it before. I guess I could go more in depth with it. If you’ve never considered how the language of different characters and scenes can affect your writing, well, it’s definitely worth thinking about.

But today, I’m going to talk about a different kind of language.

Foul language.

Some of you might not recognize the term (as it isn’t as widely used anymore), so I’ll get a little more specific. Swearing. Cursing. Derogatory words. Words and phrases that are generally considered impolite. The “F” word. D**n. Stuff like that. And yes, I’m censoring them for this blog. Family friendly.

You got that? All right. Are you ready for one of the biggest shocks of your life?

You shouldn’t be using them. At least, not nearly as often as you do.

You see, there’s this weird idea among those who want to be “adult” or “mature” that they must “do mature things.” So with many young writers, the first thing that they do to prove that they’re a “serious writer” is drop as many swear words as they can into their work. To them, it’s the mark of maturity. They want to be taken seriously, and that—to them—means that they need to up the foul language to show … well, I don’t really know. That their characters are somehow edgy and “adult?” That they’ve mastered the complexities of character and dialogue by splitting apart a basic, nine-word sentence with three instances of the word “F***?”

The funny thing is, some of you might think this is amusing, but this actually happens. It happens online. It happens in other media industries like the games industry. And it happens in the publishing world. So often, in fact, that some editors have a name for the “condition” (and stories with it are summarily fired back). Young writers seem to believe that in order for their work to be taken seriously, in order for it to be better, they and their characters need to swear. And the more the characters swear, the more mature and deep the work is!

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Because the truth of the matter is this: Foul language, used with the intent I’m speaking of here, is a damaging, self-destructive crutch. It’s the confusing of shock value with actual skill. And it adds nothing to your writing. In fact, it takes away. Instead of adding to an author’s credibility, instead it damages.

And yet, new authors continue to do it.

Now, I’m not saying that characters in your books shouldn’t swear. The problem is that many young writers make characters swear—and swear repeatedly—solely on the concept that this will somehow (as I’ve said, there really isn’t a determinate reason for the belief) make their work better. Which isn’t true. What’s happening here is that writers are taking what they think is the easy way out of a situation. Rather than spend the time to give a character a more carefully constructed dialogue, the writer simply has the character utter a swear (or two or three, because more is better, right?) and move on.

This is actually readily apparent if you read a lot of online fiction. Not self-pub indie, but the sort of freebie fiction sites where anyone can upload a story and submit it to the masses. If you’ve read stories in that completely free-for-all spectrum, many, in an attempt to show what the author believes is maturity, have their main characters drop a number of f-bombs that completely run against the grain of what they had been working towards.

The thing is, no work is improved by simply dropping swears into it. Having your characters drop swears every few words does nothing to improve your writing or your characters; but instead cheapens your writing, character, and drives away all but those who somehow are convinced that swearing odds automatic maturity (ie, the majority of the eleven year-old population of Xbox Live).

This isn’t what we want. We don’t want our characters to be flat. We don’t want to resort to crutches. We want our writing to flow. And for that, we need to see foul language for what it is: a tool of character, not a narrative requirement.

Let’s look first at two examples of stories that make use of heavy amounts of swearing, since I know a number of people would otherwise try to look to these as examples to justify their own language use. The first is the infamous The Catcher in the Rye. Catcher is well known for its truly impressive degree of language, or at least at the time it came out. It was censored, even banned in some places, and is widely a controversial book even today in public schools. And one of the reasons is the high amount of foul language present.

But with Catcher, the language is a part of the character. The main and viewpoint character, Holden, is an angry, angst-filled teen whose use of language is, the reader quickly realizes, an act of immature rebellion. He is a parallel of the idea that swearing is “mature” and “adult,” and acts on this by being as foul-mouthed as he pleases. It’s a part of his character that is a clear flaw, and the reader recognizes the immature mentality and reasoning behind the character’s language, which in turn establishes Holden’s character and gives the reader cause to doubt a lot of the character’s own words and decisions and realize how lost Holden really is.

A second example: Gears of War. Despite the reactions of some players, the Gears series has actually been praised for its ability to deliver an incredibly complex world and story that demands the player’s full attention (which is why players who expect to be spoon fed often complain about a “lack” of story). One of the details that the writers used to educate the players about both the characters and the world was language.

Now, Gears is rightfully known for dropping swear-words like candy (much like Catcher) from time to time, but again, it’s how and when they are used that makes the difference. Let us take, for example, the character Jace.

Jace is—if you pay attention to his character—a religious man, and as a result, barely swears and tends to keep his language to a minimum. The quips he makes during fights, during his dialogue, all are for the most part, very clean and, though enthusiastic and upbeat, worded in a way that lets you know he’s watching himself.

Until one moment. Part of the deepness of the characters comes from the lines they drop over the course of the game, and there’s one little gem with Jace that you only get—if I recall correctly—when specific requirements are met. Be in a firefight against superior numbers, bullets everywhere, while firing from cover and jam the reload. The normally tacit Jace breaks, letting loose an absolute flood of panicked profanity that is, in the context of proper English, so overblown as to be completely senseless. It’s a moment of character where we see his self-control break, we see the panic take over, and we get a much deeper sense that what’s transpiring is getting to him.

How effective would that be if, like some would write it, Jace was already filling his sentences with three or four swears a breath? The break in his demeanor would no longer have meaning. That moment of character would be buried, impossible to distinguish from any of his other moments.

I suppose the best way to put this would be to paraphrase Syndrome from The Incredibles: When everyone’s special, no one is. Foul language is the same way. Used frequently, used liberally, used with abandon just to be used, weakens the narrative. However, held back for a few key moments, or used to define a specific character, it becomes a useful tool, just like anything else in the writer’s toolbox.

For example. In Dead Silver Hawke Decroux, the main character, does not swear often. He’s very laid back, very chill, and most of the time when inclined to express displeasure, usually does so in a creative manner rather than stooping to a generic, unimaginative curse. However, the few times he does resort to an actual swear, it says something about both the situation and Hawke’s current state. It’s an upset—an unusual occurrence that implies that all is not well at the moment.

There are other uses as well. There are a moments when a character will use a swear for emphasis, and these can be great primers of both culture and character. For instance, in any western-genre work you can expect to hear the term “d*mn” tossed around by at least one character with pretty high regularity. But it’s part of the character and part of the setting, and authors can do great things by having a character who doesn’t swear in that setting as well.

One last thought: if you’re going to have your characters swear, please think outside of the box for a moment.

I’m serious. It makes little sense for Pippin to drop the f-bomb in a LotR story (though I’ll bet I could find fanfic where he does just that, not that I want to). It makes little sense for the characters in a fantasy world that has no concept of “hell” or “damnation” to use either of the swears or curses associated with the term. Culture, upbringing, the world around us … All of these thing influence our language (and granted, this goes past swears), and the “swears” that your characters use should reflect that. Come up with your own swears, not just bowdlerised versions of swears we have (Battlestar Galactica‘s “frak” comes to mind) but actual bits of culture and character to them. For example, Wheel of Time had what was, to the seafaring traders, an incredibly potent swear that was “Son/Daughter of the Sands” that usually was met with extreme violence. Or the phrase “Burn,” which was usually used in the same way we would use “d*mn.”

So, in summary: Don’t give in to the temptation to make your characters foul-mouthed simply because you think it will make you a more accepted author. It won’t. It will do just the opposite. Like everything else language, even foul, is a writer’s tool. A character piece, or something that will give the reader context and clues to the greater world. It is not filler or a mark of sophistication and class (the opposite, in fact). It is a tool to be used carefully, in select places, to deliver context and meaning.

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