Over the course of the last couple of weeks, we’ve had the honor of having author Michael Blaylock share his insight into why we consider certain words ‘bad’. It’s been an interesting examination of why saying ‘ass’ and saying ‘butt’ can illicit completely different reactions from people, especially the Christian community. It’s not an argument for cussing – simply a means to discuss the origins of the status quo.
If you want to check out the previous posts on language, here are the links:
Many of the same points that were made can be transferred to our discussions on why bad language – cursing, cussing, foul language, and other monikers – can be used in Christian fiction.
I remember when I was in my teens, I said the S word to my mother. My dad came home and ‘washed’ my mouth out with a full bar of soap. That taught me not to cuss again during my adolescence. But saying the word and writing the word for fiction are two completely different things…aren’t they?
Many of my current novels have curse words in them. There’s something about a well-timed, responsibly used curse word that evokes emotion in a scene and helps solidify characterization. Cursing can hint to a character’s background, it can reveal a lack of self-control with one’s tongue, and it can even illicit cheers from the reader when that verbal blow is finally dealt to the villain or anti-hero who just needed a good verbal beating.
Many Christian writers though veer away from using any type of negative language in their stories. Most of this is because they've been 'taught' by the Christian publishing industry and by Christian peers that cursing is wrong both verbally and in the written word. Now I don't advocate that people curse. I myself try not to curse, and I don't like hearing other people curse. But I think when it comes to writing, to telling a story, that we have to come to a point where we admit that some of our characters would curse in real life. I mean, humans aren't perfect - why should our fictional characters be, especially if we're trying to mirror reality to some degree?
I’ve noticed there’s three crowds, with my own suggestion of a rare fourth. This is by no means meant to make fun of or degrade any of these types of Christian writers, as I believe all of these types of writers have a place in the world of Christian fiction. More of this is about taste, and what the reader is actually wanting to see in the Christian novel they have picked up, and what the writer wants to include in his/her story.
Group 1 – No Curse Words
This first group chooses not to use any curse words or anything taking the place of curse words. Most of these manuscripts are clean-cut, family-friendly.
Group 2 – Replacement Words
This group chooses to replace curse words with (sometimes silly) replacements. Gosh darn it. Dang nabbit. Darn Skippy. Many of these are old-school verbal cues to indicate that a character is ticked off or upset about something. Maybe one of them hit their finger with the hammer. These words aren’t necessarily bad, I just personally think they don’t sound right in more serious and dramatic novels and instead have a better place in humorous novels that have more zany characters or plots.
Group 3 – Made-up Curse Words
This group chooses to get a little more creative with their language and make up fictional curse words. A good example of this is the word ‘frak’ in the Battlestar Galactica series. ‘Frak’ is supposed to be a creative substitute for the F-word. I’ve heard made-up words like these in television shows, and have read some of them in novels. I even did this once in my Expired Reality series. I created Tria’na, which loosely means ‘mentally-challenged bastard child’.
This group pretty much takes what Group 2 is doing and uses their creative force to make the words sound not as silly or old-school, and instead brings the words to life in their fiction universe.
Group 4 – Curse words
The final group is the group that I don’t see a lot of nowadays. I’m not implying we necessarily need to see a lot of Christian writers using curse words in their Christian novels, but I think Christian authors need to reevaluate ‘why’ they don’t, and possibly reconsider if their stories warrant such words.
There is a great responsibility added to this group though, as a curse word used irresponsibly can definitely turn your reader off and make them close the book without a desire to open it ever again. This rule of responsible language should be applied to secular novels with cursing as well. I know when I pick up any book – or even watch a movie – that has the F-bomb thrown around at leisure, I tend to take the piece less seriously and end up losing interest in the characters. I don’t want to pay someone to read or hear foul language all day long.
Here’s a line from my novel, Black Earth: The Broken Daisy, to give you an idea of where I’ve used curse words before to bring a greater impact to some of my scenes:
When I initially wrote this passage, I cringed when I reread it with the curse words in there. But then I realized that it felt right, that it added that extra emotion to the scene. Heather is a woman whose heart has been broken, and she is pouring out her vitriol on Nathan. She isn’t going to use words like ‘mean girl’ or ‘crap’, because it felt as if those words would rob the scene of its potential power.
Curse words can definitely bring emotion to the page, if used responsibly – even in Christian fiction. It all depends on the type of book you’re writing, who your audience is, and if the scene calls for it. And if it does, don’t necessarily shy away from sprinkling a bit of language in there if the scene warrants it. And if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it.
This whole series has been more about teaching Christian writers that they have tools at their disposal that the Christian publishing industry has told them not to use for one reason or another, not necessarily to say that you have to use these tools.