To cuss or not to cuss; that is the question!
Every so often, I am privy to a debate about the use of profanity in the world of literature. The camps generally break down into three major groups, and possibly a minor fourth. They are:
Which group of the main three is correct? Well, that's simple. Since every aspect mentioned here is opinion, they are all correct.
If you're a writer, particularly one just starting out, it's important that you understand the implications - the pros and the cons - of each viewpoint before you make the decision to use, abuse, or ignore profanity. In order to do that, we'll need to kill off a bit of a preconceived notion about characters (people) and who is more "likely" to swear than others. According to the Association for Psychological Science, "...swearing crosses socioeconomic statuses and age groups and...is more common among adolescents and more frequent among men."
So, while we may think we're adding color and dimension to a character simply by adding a few well-placed F-bombs in the dialogue of a dock worker, but not a third-generation doctor educated at Yale, we're not. The fact that one character is blue-collar and the other comes from old money is not reason enough.
Those morally opposed, please say, "Amen."
When I'm talking about this group of writers, I'm not talking necessarily about the content they write. There is an entire genre of books categorized as inspirational. If you take a look at your local Wal-Mart bookshelves, you'll find everything from Amish romances to Bibles in this section. The authors of these books (except, perhaps, the Bible) probably don't swear in their real lives (except, perhaps, Josh Duggar).
No, I'm talking about writers of any genre who feel that they shouldn't swear in print because it is morally wrong to swear. The question you have to ask yourself if you fall into this category is, "Does my character believe the same things I do."
In order to get our readers to suspend their disbelief (they disbelieve that the events or people in the novel actually exist and it's our job to make them believe it), we must create characters so real and multifaceted that they could almost leap off the page and into our real, every-day world.
The fact is that some people swear. If you're writing a character who would, in the right circumstances, drop an F-bomb, then consider letting them do it. In context. And in character. If you write a book about a group of gang-bangers hanging out on street-corners selling drugs (and the missionary who saves them, perhaps), there is a good chance that at least some of them have no aversion to swearing from time to time.
Pro: Creating appropriate characters and appropriate characterizations; suspending disbelief.
Con: If you're writing inspirational works, my might disengage your readership.
Real writers don't resort to foul language
This argument tends to rub me the wrong way. Probably because some of my characters think and speak taboo language all the time. Notice I said "some" of my characters. Used correctly, a well-placed taboo can make a scene, and used incorrectly, it can break it.
Mark Twain once said, "When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear." I don't think anyone can argue that Mark Twain is one of America's most colorful authors. He wasn't lazy, and his command of the English language was pretty well-rounded. In fact, his own use of profanity in general is well written about, if not documented verbatim. Though, he didn't use it freely in his published works.
Still, the argument persists that if a writer has to resort to profanity, the very act is a cop out. If you want to write a literary masterpiece that will stand the test of time, don't use foul language. Tell that to Shakespeare and Chaucer. They both used profanity in their works and they have most decidedly withstood the test of time.
Pro: Some of the greatest literary artists of all time used profanity.
Con: If you can think of one, please comment.
Building characters the old fashioned way...
... one colorful word at a time.
Our characters come alive with only two attributes. Everything they say, and everything they do.
In my current work-in-progress, one of the characters is a Bible-wielding activist fighting tooth-and-nail against marriage equality. She has a few skeletons in her closet she'd rather not have the entire world know about. She doesn't cuss and she doesn't drink. When the woman with whom she'd had a teen-aged affair shows up in her hotel room immediately prior to a press conference, her reaction is both shock and fear.
Melissa answered the door after the third round of persistent knocks. Without really looking , she bellowed, "What do you want?" When her gaze focused on the gentle features of the woman standing on the threshold, her entire body chilled and heated at the same time. "What do you want?" she repeated, the words tripping over themselves as she spoke.
This scene wouldn't have the same impact if our MC, Melissa, hadn't taken a drink and cussed. The character is basically living a lie, herself, which is what she is accusing her opposition of doing. Her entire world rests on her position in the right-wing religious community and the facade she's spent a couple of decades building is about to come crashing down around her. If she weren't a total phony, and she honestly believed the rhetoric that had made her career, then she might have said, "Darn," to herself and it could have been effective. But she isn't that character. Her character would take the full impact of what was about to happen and put everything into one declarative thought.
Pros: Using well-placed profanity can add dimension to your characters.
Cons: Overuse can be a distraction.
Take it or leave it
The bottom line is that not every book needs profanity to be successful. Not every book must avoid it for the same results. Build your world, and the folks who inhabit it, with care and thoughtful word choices. Refrain from using profanity to get attention or for any reason other than creating faceted and believable characters. If your book people swear, make certain there is a reason for it. Just as importantly, if they don't swear, give them a reason, too.