In writing, profanity is a tool, but not the only tool

In this week’s Writing Excuses comments, a poster named Sam asked:

How do you, as writers, get past your own inhibitions concerning the use of profanity in order to write a character who does use it?

Why get past them?

Any given audience has values (as do you as a writer). Stomp on the values too much and you will make the readers so uncomfortable or angry that their discomfort will outweigh the draw of the story. They will put you down and never read you again. For one audience it’s gore. Another it’s explicit sex or vulgarity. For another it’s the bashing of a political stance or a particular demographic.

If you or your audience is uncomfortable with profanity then say “he swore” OR find another way to convey the information the profanity does.

Writing works by evoking types in the reader’s mind (as well as type resistors for surprise, curiosity, humor, etc.). Trigger a type and all the data associated with that type comes with it. Profanity is one way to trigger a type (or work against type) in the reader’s mind. But there are many other ways to evoke that same type, many ways to produce the same effect. Language, especially profanity, is a powerful and efficient method, but it’s not the only one.

You want a mean cruel man? You can have him call his wife a “cu**” all the time. OR you can just show him doing something cruel to her or slapping her, e.g. he grabs her by the neck and makes her look at the food on his plate up close like some pet owners do to dogs when they crap where they shouldn’t–”Does that look like beef stroganoff to you? Stupid whore.”

Look at Prison Break. Teddy needed to be scary. Profanity could have helped trigger his character. After all, cons use a lot of profanity. But Prison Break was prime time so the writers used other things to evoke the types they needed. Teddy worked for the purposes of that story. All of the cons did. They were believable. And all that without a deluge of profanity.

Stay away from replacement profanity that evokes a different type. For example, if you had Teddy using “darn it” all the time, unless it was part of some particular character attribute, it would have not been believable because it evokes the wrong type, e.g. Ned Flanders.

So if you don’t want to use profanity, don’t. Think about your objective and find another type trigger.

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