One day, Timmy was sitting in his bedroom playing Army Men with his little brother Kyle. After pulling off a particularly devastating massacre of his brother’s battalion, he spoke up out of the blue.
“Kyle,” he said, “I think it’s about time we started swearing.” Kyle looked up at his brother, noting the look of determination on his face. There was no point in arguing, so he decided to go along with it and voiced his approval.
Timmy grinned. “Okay, here’s the plan. When we go down for lunch, I’ll say ‘hell’ and you say ‘ass’. Got it?” Kyle hesitantly nodded his head, then followed his older brother downstairs. As they crawled up into their seat at the kitchen bar, their mother walked in from the living room.
“Hey there, you two look hungry. What do you want for lunch?” she asked.
“Aww hell Mom, just make me a sandwic-”
Before he could finish his sentence, his mother smacked him across the top of his head so hard that he fell off of his stool and onto the ground. Stunned, he looked up at his mother who now turned her wide, angry eyes toward his brother.
“How about you, Kyle?” she asked, her gaze steely and unflinching.
“I don’t know,” he answered, “but you can bet your ass I don’t want a sandwich.”
As you may have guessed, the topic for today is (dunn dunn dunnnn) swearing. This is a delicate subject for me, so understand that I do not approach this lightly. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last several years.
You see, I am a man of faith. I’m not going to get into the specifics of that here, but it should be understood that swearing is something that is particularly frowned upon by those who hold the same beliefs as me. Unsurprisingly, I totally agree. I make it a point in my life not to swear if I can at all help it, regardless of whether I am around my family or friends or anyone else. It’s just not something I feel the need to do, personally. And, well, that’s pretty much it. I don’t plan on changing this aspect of my life any time soon, so let’s move on.
The dilemma I’m running into is that I find it very difficult to write a story that has realistic characters without some of them swearing. Let’s be honest here. Swearing is something that lots and lots and lots of people do. For better or worse, whether you agree with it or not, people like to say naughty words. It’s a fact of life.
For a very long time, I tried to pretend that this isn’t the case. In any story I wrote, it never mattered how vile and despicable a character might be; he or she always had a mouth like a nun, never allowing even the tiniest inkling of a curse to slip past their lips. It didn’t work. It took me a long time to figure out why it didn’t work, but I knew intuitively that these characters just weren’t believable. It was like watching Die Hard on network television. When Bruce Willis looks at the camera and utters his infamous line, “Yippee-Kie-Yay, fart-lover,” you can’t help but laugh. Even if you aren’t fond of the language he used in the real version, you can’t help but feel like you just got cheated.
This isn’t to say that every character in my stories needed to curse like a sailor, because that can be just as unrealistic as having no one swear at all. I can’t stand it when books and movies think they are more edgy and cool just because the main character drops the f-bomb every other word. Not only is it distracting, it’s also just plain lazy. No, I needed to find that happy medium, but I had no idea how. And then, the answer came to me, a realization so simple that most people figure it out by their freshman english lit class.
Just have your characters talk like normal people.
The question is, how do you define “normal”? The truth is, there is no such thing as normal. Everyone is different. We all come from different backgrounds, we all have different experiences, and we all express ourselves in different ways. By making everyone’s speech pure as the wind-driven snow, I made them all sound the same, not at all like what you hear on a day-to-day basis. When I’m at work, some people drop a few bad words in now and then, while others find it as unprofessional as I do. Still others curse like four-letter words are going out of style. You find the same story at every workplace, every grocery store, every baseball game, almost anywhere you can possibly end up. So the bottom line is, if I wanted to write interesting characters that actually sounded realistic, some of them would need to curse now and then. Some of them would need to curse a lot.
And therein lies the problem. How can I, as someone who doesn’t believe in using foul language, justify my use of writing it into my fictional works? Isn’t it hypocritical of me to do such a thing? After all, I’m the one writing the narration, I’m the one making up these characters and stories, so it’s really my voice there on the page. Isn’t it? Well, yes and no. While it’s true that the characters are of my creation, they are not me. They have their own voice, their own cadence, and their own use of language. If every character truly was my voice, then it would make for one very boring story. That’s fine for me, because I don’t mind being a boring guy. I like boring. Being bored is one of my favorite past times. But if I force that onto my characters instead of letting them be who they are, then I am not creating anything of any real value. And if that’s the case, then what is the point of it all?
So, all of that is to say, indeed, some of my stories will have swearing in them. Some people aren’t going to like this, I already know. All I can say to them is that I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped. I’m going to write, and what comes out is what comes out. My stories aren’t a reflection of who I am. I know who I am. I don’t have to write stories to convince myself of that, and I certainly don’t need anyone else to tell me otherwise.