Pardon my french

by Michelle Gagnon

During our first page critiques, we discussed the danger of incorporating strong language on page 1 of your manuscript. Encountering an f-bomb at the outset of a novel can turn off a lot of readers, so editors are understandably leery of acquiring works with it.

However, I think that strong language does have a place in novels- at least in mine. I frequently get emails or reviews from people who say things like, “I loved this book, but wish that someone had gone through and crossed out all the f-bombs for me.” Equally perplexing to me are the people who claim that they “didn’t mind the f-bombs, but at times Gagnon takes the name of the Lord in vain.”

Here’s the thing: I’m not the one doing it. My characters are, and they’re doing it because in real life, that’s how people in their particular professions and circumstances talk.

I understand that we don’t all approve of strong language- I certainly don’t use it frequently. But then, I’m rarely chasing serial killers, or trying to stop a domestic terror group from destroying Phoenix. When my characters are staring at the timer on a bomb, I don’t think “gosh” is going to be the first word to leave their lips. I try to be judicious with the swearing, but it’s most important to me to remain true to the characters spouting it. From my admittedly somewhat limited exposure to them, gang members and ex-con skinheads tend to have foul mouths. So do many law enforcement officers, especially when they’re talking to each other. I strive for accuracy in every other facet of my books. So why should I be expected to compromise on this one?

Maybe I’ve simply become inured. The places I’ve lived (including San Francisco), it’s rare to get through the day without hearing random swearing (and now that people are constantly talking loudly into their cell phones, they really seem to have lost their filter). I’ll join in on any bemoaning of what that means for us as a society. But since that experience informs my work, I can’t pretend it’s not the current reality, allowing my characters to speak as though they just stumbled off the Leave it to Beaver set.

I was raised a Unitarian, which is a religion that promotes tolerance of all beliefs. So I empathize with people who don’t condone taking the name of the Lord in vain. And yet, I can attest that my characters harken from a wide range of religious beliefs. Because of that, chances are they’re going to use such terms from time to time. And in the interest of realistic dialogue, I believe in letting them. If I were writing Inspirational thrillers, it would be an entirely different story. But I’m not.

I’m curious to hear what people think about this. Does strong language have a place in thrillers? Does it bother you, or not?

25 thoughts on “Pardon my french

  1. I think you nailed it. Profanity, like anything else in any writing should be used to add to the texture of the story and the characters. If it’s gratuitous, that’s a turn-off.

    You can’t please all your readers. All you can do is create the best story possible and go from there.

  2. I can understand the argument for its use, but at the same time, I think the argument can be made that it isn’t necessary. I did a quick scan through Oliver Twist, expecting that I would find some blanked out words, but my eye didn’t fall on any foul language. Because we are ultimately communicators, I think what it comes down to is a responsibility to the reader. If our readers don’t want to see bad language or taking the Lord’s name in vain, then we should leave it out. That may require some creativity on our part. At times, that one word may require several to get the the same idea across, but I believe that being respectful of the reader pays dividends in the sales of the next book.

  3. Hi, Michelle.

    I appreciate the questions you raised in your post. I have been wrestling with this a bit recently; I’m writing a YA novel, and want to avoid vulgarity if I can, but there are a couple of places already where it seems appropriate to the story — that characters in those situations would say something “off-color”. In each case so far, though, I’ve managed to give their words a double-meaning, so that (re)readers who pay attention will see that the characters were actually conveying more about the story than they thought, and I hope that may lend a little more justification to its use. I’m not sure if I can pull that off or not for the whole project, but I’m going to try…

    The other thing I’d say is that anything of a questionable nature portrayed in a story — violence, sex, language — has to be evaluated and balanced against the story as a whole. Many times, however, I do feel that authors (or scriptwriters, where movies are concerned) insert these things unnecessarily, or at a level of detail that the reader/viewer doesn’t really need to have. And many times it seems like a distraction from the story.

  4. Up front, profanity doesn’t offend me (I was in the military, so I’ve heard it many times over). That being said, I read a lot of urban fantasy, which uses the f-word a lot. More than thriller, in fact.

    If I start a book and they use the f-word word within the first couple of pages or I start seeing excessive use of the word, I stop reading. In urban fantasy, use of the word often comes as either trendy or me feeling like the writer is trying to show off that women can swear, too.

    But I stop reading because the excessive use it tends to signal that the writer has a taste issue in the book that will make reading not enjoyable. The taste issue is not just to profanity, but a symptom of an undercurrent that runs throughout the entire book.

    Do I use profanity? Not commonly, because I think the scene really has to merit it. I think I have one swear word in mine, and where it is, there just wasn’t another word that fit better.

    At one time I entertained writing a book about the military, and I actually had people tell me that it wouldn’t be realistic without the profanity. In my first duty station, there was some profanity, but not to the extent everyone imagines. In my second duty station, I had a better class of people. No profanity. So I get tired of hearing the argument that it’s “realistic.” That’s excuse for not thinking about how to use it for best effect in a story.

  5. Timely questions, Michelle. There are certain genre in which the audience and/or the publisher restricts certain use of language, sex and violence. But in all cases, I believe that it’s the writer’s obligation to be true to our characters within the confines of the genre.

  6. I once got a letter (remember those?) from a 75 year-old woman in Kansas saying that she was my second biggest fan. She told me that her 96 year-old mother was my biggest. She wrote that she read my books first so she could black out the cursing because certain words upset her mother.

    Timothy- When Oliver Twist was written social conventions were quite different. Ever read Chaucer? That was a “Brown Bag” tale. Your responsibility is to your readers, but it is also to yourself and your vision. If sales to readers are your goal, then reality of characters’ choice of words can take a second seat. I guess if your villains went to Yale Divinity school…

  7. The great noir classics, film and print, of the 40s and 50s, managed to be everything we have now, without the language issue (and, I might add, without graphics in the ol’ bedroom). Why? Because ficiton is not reality; it’s stylized reality, and we, the writers, are the ones in control. It’s still possible, in my view, to write in that tradition.

    I think of the early years of Law & Order. It managed to be gritty and real and gripping without any F bombs or S missiles. The writers were amazingly good at this. I like the challenge of doing it that way.

  8. Most of my characters swear, but most of my characters are in the middle of crisis of huge proportions, too.

    My father never swore more than dang it! or darn it! When my first book came out, Catfish Guru, he liked it but said he thought people swore too much. I discussed it with my brother (who has a potty mouth like me) and he commented that (he’s a college professor) even in academia you can sort of get a gauge of background stress by paying attention to the rise of profanity. That is to say, as people get more stressed, their profanity increases.

    That said, in my novel Dirty Deeds, the publisher (not the editor, she was on my side) at the last minute came back wanting some of the profanity changed. I was bracing myself for the f-bombs, but what they wanted was for every “goddamn” and “Jesus Christ!” be changed to damn and something else. Part of their rationale was the backdrop of the book was a TV evangelist and that kind of profanity, they thought, might be viewed as an assault on religion (and for the record, the evangelist was NOT the bad guy in that book). So we changed it, although I don’t know if it mattered to the two people that read the book or not.

  9. I think many of us have become inured to the f-, s-, p-, and b- bombs through overexposure. But what about offensive words that are less frequently used, such as the c bomb? I wouldn’t keep reading a book that used that word gratuitously. I think our reading reactions are influenced by what we personally find offensive.

    Beyond its turn-on/turn-off aspects,
    I think profuse profanity can be a symptom of lazy writing. Some writers rely on profanity as a shortcut for adding muscle to their writing, instead of developing muscle through rhythm, characterization, and originality.

    By the way, I watched an old movie yesterday and came up with two new favorite epithets: “mud turtle,” and “popinjay.” Loved those!

  10. I agree with what you said. In my script writing class in college, my prof said that even though she hates swearing, if it fits the character stay true to your character. I always admired that about her since I went to a very conservative christian college.


  11. What appalls me are the people (readers and writers both) who will read or write stories with gruesome violence and high body counts without blinking, yet are mortally offended over strong language. I’m reading Stephen King’s MISERY, and Annie Wilkes is such a character, a serial killer who uses language no stronger than “dirty bird” or “cockadoodie.” It work’s there because King is trying to show SHE’S A FRIGGING WHACK JOB! Which is how I tend to think of those with such strong objections to any foul language in violent books. Not as bad as Annie, of course, but there’s something not right there.

    Granted, the usage and context is important, but that’s a question of good writing, not bad language.

  12. Doesn’t bother me at all – unless it’s just gratuitous. Australians swear a lot so maybe I’m inured:) I agree though – if it’s how people speak it’s got to be used – otherwise it sounds ridiculous. I mean a CIA operative is hardly going to say “Egads! A terrorist!”

  13. I think to a certain degree you have to be aware of the type of audience you’re going for. In my books, which are action adventure novels, I want someone who likes my book to be able to give it to their teenager or grandparent without caveats or warnings. If Indiana Jones or Lost can do it, so can I. I’ve heard plenty of people complain when an action adventure novel had too much bad language, but I’ve never heard anyone complain that there wasn’t enough bad language.

    But if what you write is gritty noir about drug dealers, leaving out the foul language would look ridiculous and take the reader out of the story. It really is up to the author to figure out what works for their story, genre, and audience.

  14. This is the exact conversation I had with my Aunt about my first book. She said, “I don’t like your protagonist very much. Why does she have to swear like that?” Now I have to donsider that my Aunt is almost 90 and was a Nun for a long, long time.

    I explained to her that a terrorist or killer isn’t going to say, “That gosh-darned bomb didn’t blow up.”

    Like you Michelle, I want my dialog to be accurate. I rarely, if ever use foul language in narrative.

  15. It doesn’t bother me. There are certain words – namely, those referring to a certain part of the female anatomy, that I do not care for (to hear or to read). The f-word – if used sparingly, then it works. Again, as you indicated, it is used to achieve a desired effect. If any one cuss word is used all over the place, then it no longer stands out and the effect is lost.

    I’m working on this very issue with my novel. I revised a scene yesterday after a developmental editor said it should be more intense. In the scene, my protag beats up the person he is after. Up to this point, my protag does not use the f-word. Hell, –d damn, those are used. In this scene, I feel he has to use the f-word to show just how angry and worked up he really is.

    I’m still on the fence about it, though!


  16. John Ramsey Miller,

    You’re right, Oliver Twist was written under different social conventions. But we are hard pressed to find a foul language spewing modern villain who compares to the clean mouthed Bill Sikes. I see that as sufficient proof that we can respect the social conventions of our readers and still produce believable villains.

  17. Thanks for chiming in, everyone.

    Actually, depending on what you consider a curse, there is swearing in Indiana Jones and Lost – for some reason in recent years “Damn,” “Crap,” and a few other expletives are now standard fare on television, even on sitcoms.

    I also think that with a visual medium, the characters can do things like look away and mutter to themselves (which Sawyer does frequently on Lost) and the viewer assumes what he’s saying is not complimentary.

    I don’t agree with catering to the small percentage of readers who might be offended. Writing to please others can be a slippery slope, and no two people will ever have the exact same take on a book anyway. I think that as a writer, your first responsibility is to the story and the characters.

    Out of curiosity, I did a word search in my latest manuscript.
    Here’s the breakdown:

    12 f-bombs (most of them in one conversation between a few special forces guys- and based on the ones that I’ve spent time with, they put sailors to shame)

    5 Christs

    18 Damns

    Out of 102,000 words, I think that’s fairly judicious.

  18. That is indeed judicious Michelle. I don’t mind profanity as long as it is realistic with one exception. Sexual profanity just grates on me. Makes me feel icky. I can write about torture, fighting, even rape, but the the couple of times I tried to include an f-bomb in my work for a character who would indeed speak that way it sounded so out of place in my head that I took it out and changed the phrasing.

    I guess it is just my own puritan sensibilities. I am going to go back to dadgum torture rack and finish dismembering this freakin’ crazy punk who fouled up the freakin’ terrorists plan and got caught with out the flippin’ hero nearby so now the galdarn tangos are ripping him a new bung hole literally while they shred his freakin’ willie with a cheese grater.

    All without swearing.

  19. Strong language doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, it’s the opposite, the Leave it to Beaver stuff, that does bother me — unless the language is super graphic, I tend to notice the tame stuff a lot more. I think, like anything, it has to fit in the story and be character appropriate. Lots of goshes and darns can make a book seem unrealistic for me. I want the books I read, even if they’re off the wall paranormal stuff, to be grounded in enough reality that I can believe what I’m reading.

  20. Hi Michelle,

    This caught my attention because my 2 sons -ages 12 and 9 – just read My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. They are amazing readers and I have always had a hard time finding appropriate literature for them that would keep them engaged but would be content appropriate. Now that they are on the cusp of adult literature we talk about the subject matter and language a lot when they are reading books. My 9-year-old’s reaction to My Sister’s Keeper was “Why would anyone want to write such a sad book?” and “There was A LOT of bad language.” I have long since de-bunked profanity – asking them what they knew and telling them what it meant so the words weren’t shocking to them. We talked about people’s reactions to different circumstances and that different people deal with situations in different ways. I think profanity for profanity’s sake is useless but I do understand and think it is appropriate given certain characters and situations!

  21. Michelle–great topic! I’ve read your books and don’t even *remember* any profanity, so obviously to me it seemed in context. I sure as heck remember your characters, the stunning set pieces, a few gruesome murders. The feeling of having experienced something worth experiencing.

    I think anyone who uses a LOT of profanity should do it with the same ear for both music and dialog that David Mamet has. But the occasional sprinkling of profanity help reinforce character, set a mood, enhance the sense of danger or supense? There is nothing wrong with that!!!

    I agree with Alan Moore (fabulous graphic novel writer, trained with the BBC and all) who says that we should NEVER write for the lowest common denominator, or we’ll write work that offends no one, but entertains no one either.

    That said, as a linguist I know that the dialog in fiction *represents* real dialog. Good fictional dialog leaves out most of the verifiers, the false starts, the nonverbal responses, the sheer repetition because in the real world, we might not get it the first time.

    So, for profanity, or *any other class of word*, be it infix or onomonpeia (sp!), context is king. Some terrorists speak with false politeness, some like bikers. To demand that an author SANITIZE things for a reader is like insisting that someone chew your food for you.

    JMO, of course!

  22. Wow, Stacy, those are some advanced readers! I think it’s great that you’re exposing them to a large range of literature.
    And you’re right, Mysti, written dialogue is definitely different from the spoken word. The trick lies in striking that balance.

  23. I don’t have a problem with profanity if it fits the character. I worked for a police department for ten years, and if you took the f-word out of these officers’ vocabularies they wouldn’t have anything to say!

  24. I happen to agree with James Scott Bell but I’ll further his line of reasoning with three additional points:

    First, I think cursing is lazy. It’s usually a knee-jerk reaction to a bad happening. Rather than responding to situations calmly and objectively, most people feel an emotion and open their mouths in a reaction. (And that’s the difference between responding and reacting.) It’s not a good way to live. The parallel is that writers who use curse words are also being lazy. Throwing in a colorful word here and there rather than making a scene work without it is lazy too. It takes real effort to make a scene work so why not write your best? It’s just like using the dreaded adverbs!

    Secondly, reading is an escape. What from? Reality. So, if reality has cursing then that’s an argument for not including the language. This does of course depend on your genre and audience.

    Lastly, do you know which rating in movies usually makes the most money? G for General Audiences. So it would seem that any writer who wants their work to sell would want to reach the largest possible audience. Therefore, don’t use cursing because it’s a limiting factor.

    Mind, these are not rules so you’re certainly welcome to include cursing. But I think that you’ll find these points to be true. So ignore them at your own risk.

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