HOLY SH##! DID SHE REALLY SAY THAT?
The challenge was to write a thoughtful piece about the use of questionable language without using such language as examples, or, alternatively, hiding behind the ubiquitous asterisk. Of course, there remains the unaddressed question of an agreeable definition for “questionable language.”
Writers of crime fiction are often faced with the dilemma of balancing realism and readers’ perceived sensibilities. When you write about bad people, of any class, you sometimes want them to use appropriate (bad) language. But how often and how bad? A recent series of posts at the mystery blog DorothyL illustrates that. As with so much of any creative enterprise, personal views tend to be varied and to dominate. Those decisions for the writer must be, ultimately, personal, and often with no obvious rational basis.
Ones characters are what they are. Some writers, and I am one, believe that our characters come in part from forces or influences over which we have only varying degrees of control. In my sailing series I created a female character to balance the novel. She was supposed to fill a very limited role. She persisted however and now threatens to take over the series. Other authors insist, and I suspect rightly so, that they are the absolute rulers of their universe and the characters in them. My detective, Sean Sean rarely swears.
Crime fiction enthusiasts and writers are frequently conflicted about the language they must use. How authentic must/should one be? I grew up in an era when writers and certainly screen writers never used what we call swear words. Evil characters played by George Raft and Peter Lorre or Burt Lancaster or Michael Caine, almost never swore. One of the necessary elements when one looks at this aspect of writing crime fiction is definitions. Various dictionaries define swearing thusly:
“a socially taboo word or phrase of a profane, obscene, or insulting character”
Ah, simple, clear, straightforward, right? Hold on. Maybe not so clear. Insulting might be in the eye of the recipient. That name you just called me might be insulting in my culture, but not in yours. Racial epithets are socially taboo. Caucasians don’t use the n- word about our black brethren, and if we think about the topic for a few minutes, we can all come up with a list of swear words to describe people of various ancestries. Except of course, those words aren’t universally offensive. I have Polish relatives who often refer to each other as “Polacks.” I have friends who bristle when they read or hear the word even when it’s used in a positive context.
Now we come to profane language. In our culture “profane” generally refers to language which defames or denigrates some religion, or a religious practice. Wow. If I decide the killer in my latest novel, “The Case of the Purloined Painting,” needs profanity to help define his character, do I have to research a bunch of religious practices to be sure I have provided the appropriate level of profanity for this character?
Then there’s language we call obscene. Unfortunately, defining heinous actions as “obscene” has become frequent and more casual in recent years, making any discussion of obscenities even more problematic. Obscenities are almost universally considered taboo language in polite society. Depending on how one defines “polite.” Obscene language almost always refers to acts of a sexual nature, or to body parts or functions usually considered private, and used in a negative way. Shakespeare created a number of words to describe bodily functions, words still used today.
Our level of understanding of characters is usually tied in part to the language they use and irritation or a lack of familiarity with that language obviously colors our perception as readers of those characters. Our acceptance or rejection of the story is often shaped by our own understanding of language as we learned it from parents and teachers. Writers need to remember that. If you want your story to be universally accessible, the language you put on the page will be different than if you are writing to a special or more precisely defined audience. Jargon and slang can be both obscuring and clarifying.
Readers need to remember that you may be reading something about characters so far from your own frame of reference that they may be almost incomprehensible. That’s not necessarily bad, but as an editor once remarked to me, “I don’t care if these people actually describe everything in their lives, including finding a f###ing cigarette, with the fbomb. For us to publish, the author will remove ninety percent of them.”
The worst and least beneficial use of upsetting language for the reader is when the author resorts to what he or she believes is shocking language to elevate the shock value of the scene or book. That technique almost always fails.
I set out to discuss the topic of swearing without doing it at readers and I think I have almost succeeded. I’ll be interested in reactions by readers of this blog and I trust they will also avoid swearing at me.
Before he became a mystery writer and reviewer, Carl Brookins was a counselor and faculty member at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Brookins and his wife are avid recreational sailors.
He is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Private Eye Writers of America. He can frequently be found touring bookstores and libraries with his companions-in-crime, The Minnesota Crime Wave.
He writes the sailing adventure series featuring Michael Tanner and Mary Whitney. The third novel is Old Silver. His new private investigator series features Sean NMI Sean, a short P.I. The most recent is The Case of the Purloined Painting. Brookins received a liberal arts degree from the University of Minnesota and studied for a MA in Communications at Michigan State University.