Swearing in Fiction

Well, the three days of summer have so far stretched to about ten, and it doesn’t look like the end is in sight just yet, so I suppose I have no further excuses to not do a ‘proper’ post. And while I’m at it, I might as well tackle a continuously controversial subject: swearing. In particular the word fuck and all its various permutations.

Let me start with my own personal view on this, which is that I have absolutely no problem at all with swearing. I could add the caveat that it has to be appropriate to the story, but that’s all up to interpretation anyway. For example: my most recent review was for JD Robb’s Naked in Death. The story is set in 2058, and while there are a number of new words in the slang of the time (mag, ice, frigid), pretty much all of the characters use the word fuck, and they don’t use it sparingly. This isn’t anything to do with their education level either, insofar as I can see. Can I give a clear reason for why they swear like that? Not really. It’s just something I’ve noticed in any book I’ve read by this author, whether she writes as JD Robb or as Nora Roberts – her characters all swear.

This is not to say that they swear indiscriminately. I personally know someone whose middle name might as well be ‘fucking’, because she uses it in every sentence she speaks, often more than once. When people swear like that it loses all its impact, and it makes them look like a right idiot as well. I swear, but I know when I can get away with it and when I shouldn’t. And that’s how I always look at swearing in fiction as well. So to go back to the example above, yes there is a fair amount of swearing in these books, but the characters do it at appropriate points, for appropriate reasons.

And the funny thing is, I’ve just had a look at the reviews on Amazon for this book (UK site), and I cannot find a single review where the reader complains about the copious use of the word fuck. There are 48 reviews in total; 35 5-star, 7 4-star, 3 3-star (and one of them is mine – I reviewed it when I first read it and wanted to strangle whoever had edited the damn thing for Kindle), 1 2-star and 2 1-star. I’ll admit I didn’t go through all the 5 and 4-star reviews, but if anyone is going to complain about it I would not expect them to give more than 3 stars.

I’m going off on a tangent here, because I find this quite interesting. I’ve had a number of people remark on the amount of swearing in my books, sometimes as a warning, sometimes as a note of something that put the reader off a little, but I honestly don’t believe that my characters swear more than the ones in JD Robb’s books. So is it because that’s a gritty murder mystery series? Not really. A quick peek at one of Nora Roberts’ romance novels shows a similar lack of complaints about the level of swearing, and I know from experience that the fucks are there.

This is making me wonder whether self-published authors are judged more harshly than traditionally published ones. A quick count in both my books gives me 87 instances of the word ‘fuck’ in The Ritual. In a book of 16 chapters that makes it on average 5.5 fucks per chapter. In The Conspiracy I’ve counted 70 instances, which gives 2.3 fucks per chapter in a 30-chapter book. Personally I don’t think that’s a lot, but I appreciate that to a reader my opinion doesn’t really count – it’s theirs that’s important.

Please don’t take this as me whining about how many people are complaining about the amount of swearing in my book – I find this genuinely interesting, and I’d rather that people who object to this are forewarned and steer clear than that they read my book and give me a crap review simply because my characters swear a lot. It just bemuses me that no one pulls a professional author up on it. In the same vein, I could only find one other person in those 48 reviews of Naked in Death who also commented on the atrocious formatting, while every self-published author is slated for every comma they miss and every word they get wrong. Again, that’s how it should be; personally I don’t want to see more than three typos in any book, professional or self-pub, but if you’re going to smack down self-published authors for this, then you should do it to the professionals as well.

Anyway, tangent aside, I see swearing as a fairly natural thing which virtually everyone does, so it does not bother me if fiction reflects that. I would personally even turn it around: for someone not to swear needs to be appropriate to the story. Let’s use another example. Veysita, the main character of my second book, is a courtier. She has been raised among ladies in waiting and is a personal friend of both the queen and the crown prince. In the entire book she uses the word ‘fuck’ 13 times, and five of those are in one screaming fit of rage where she loses control a little. For her it isn’t appropriate to swear a lot, and I’m probably pushing it with 13, but her love interest is a lot more free with the word, and he obviously has a bad influence on her. To me that’s appropriate – she’s posh, so at the start of the book she barely swears at all. Twice, I think, before her lover starts dragging her down to his level.

My opinion aside, I’ve seen quite a lot of debate on this subject, and most people fall into one of two camps: my camp, where they’re not bothered as long as it makes sense, and the opposite camp who would prefer that people find a way around it.

And to be fair, finding a way around it can be quite a lot of fun, and people can get quite creative with it. My good friend and editor Hillary (go buy her book, it’s awesome!) uses ‘pike’ or ‘piking’ and various derivatives. It works very well for her, since her world-building is so meticulous that it somehow wouldn’t be right if she just used existing swearwords.

Then there’s TV-series, where the writers have to get creative in order to get around ratings and being able to get broadcast before the watershed. Farscape (I think) used frelling. Red Dwarf used smeg and smegging. My personal favourite, Firefly, got around it by having everyone swear in Chinese. Father Ted went for the Irish angle and used feck. There are many ways to prevent your characters from using fuck, and it can work quite well. The one suggestion I have seen which I thinkย doesn’t work is to just have your characters swear under their breath, or quietly, or profusely, or whatever adverbs you want to tag on to it. It can work occasionally; at some point I have Zashter swearing colourfully, mainly because that leaves it up to the reader’s imagination rather than me having to think of a string of colourful swearwords. It just simply won’t work all the time. If you need your character to exclaim ‘Fuck!’ in frustration, it just doesn’t have the same impact as writing ‘he swore loudly’. Well, to me it doesn’t anyway.

The reason why I haven’t used any of those alternative methods is because of the one thing I have mentioned before: I actually like the word fuck. Plus I’m contrary by nature, so the more people tell me I shouldn’t use it, the more I’m inclined to ignore them.

As always I’m curious to hear everyone’s opinion on this. I know I have one or two readers who are in the opposite camp from me (and I am honestly not having a go at any of you!), but I’d love to hear from other people as well.


7 thoughts on “Swearing in Fiction

  1. H. Anthe Davis

    Well, ‘fuck’ does exist as a swear-word in my world, but only in distinctly sexual situations. ‘Pike’ is there for violent/aggressive situations, ‘fox’ for things that have been damaged or gone awry. So the fact that I don’t say ‘fuck’ a lot in the text more means that the characters haven’t been in vulgar sex-based conversations, not so much that the word doesn’t exist. ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. Pauline Ross

    I don’t have a problem with any amount of swearing, but if there’s a lot of four-letter stuff (especially the c— word) in a book where a reader might not be expecting it, I’ll mention that in a review because some people genuinely don’t like to read it. In a gritty detective novel or thriller, it’s par for the course, but in a fantasy romance with half-elves – maybe not so common. That’s not a complaint, of course, just a warning to delicate potential readers.

    I don’t think self-published works are treated much differently in that respect. Grammar, spelling and punctuation errors, yes, self-pubbers can’t get away with a single misplaced comma, but I haven’t seen any reviews focusing on excessive swearing. The most over-the-top example I’ve ever seen was a trad-pubbed book, ‘The Steel Remains’ by Richard K Morgan, which had every fucking character fucking away in every fucking sentence, from the emperor down to the street rats. It was very silly. And yes, I mentioned it in my review ๐Ÿ™‚ So did lots of other people.

    1. Erica Dakin Post author

      Yeah, the warning is sound, and I’ve taken the various comments on board and now added a warning to the descriptions of both books so that people are aware there’s sex and swearing. I just found it very interesting that no one’s pulled Nora Roberts up about it.
      Interesting example you mention, that sounds to me like it was done purely for shock value, and that’s indeed silly.

  3. Kira Lyn Blue

    I don’t mind swearing in adult fiction and my own characters tend to have foul mouths. I was actually a little surprised by your own fuck-tally from your books. Cursing certainly isn’t what I remember about your characters, so I’d say you found a good balance to your foul language usage ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Erica Dakin Post author

      Heh, when I checked later I did find that in book two at least it’s mostly concentrated in a few small bursts. At one point Kai uses ‘fuck’ six times in three consecutive paragraphs. Maybe it’s that which makes people go O.o a bit.

  4. Tina Williams

    I don’t mind at all, especially when as you point out, it makes sense for the character to do so. I also think that some people (myself not included) do tend to be more critical of self-published authors for whatever reason. A thought provoking post – I will certainly do a rough count in the next book I read where the word features!


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