Okay, so maybe it's not age-old, but it is a dilemma, at least for me. I was discussing this issue with one of my best friends, Dorathea (http://the-plot-point.blogspot.com, http://twitter.com/theplotpoint) and I've decided to blog about it and put my thoughts out there. I'd love to hear your opinions, no matter what side of the issue you stand on, because I'm not sure where I stand.
Here's the issue: as an author writing mainstream works, who is also a Christian, I'm not entirely sure how to handle the issue of cursing in my story. That may sound odd, but let me explain.
There are many Christians who would tell me (as my mother pretty much did) "How is that an issue? Christians can't write curse words!" There are Bible verses to back that up; the one that comes to mind has something to say about not letting any unwholesome thing come out of your mouth. I can't remember the reference, but I've had it quoted to me (again by my mom, whom I have the greatest love and respect for, don't mistake me. I want to be like my mother when I finish growing up) and I know it's in there, just don't ask me where. There's also the verse about not doing anything to make another believer stumble, even if it's not a sin for you -- that's the one talking about eating meat sacrificed to idols. These seem pretty clear, and maybe other Christians would look at me at this point and ask "What's the problem? Christians shouldn't swear. You shouldn't even write it. End of story."
Now, let me clarify something. I am not talking about a story where every other word is a vulgar obscenity. I believe that there is pretty much always a better, more intelligent way to express one's self than using a profanity every two seconds. It's about vocabulary in my opinion, and if an author can't tell me something without having a curse word in the sentence, he or she needs a thesaurus. Maybe that's harsh, maybe that's not accurate with the way some real people talk, but I think even when we're taking stories and characters straight from reality, there's something to be said for effective editing. The point can still be made, the plot can still move, the character can still grow or reveal his or her worse nature, without having to use gratuitous swearing. I don't believe an overabundance of adult language makes a story more realistic or more compelling.
All of that being said, I'm not offended by the occasional curse word in a novel. As a Christian, should I be? Maybe. But in my opinion that means I would have to be offended by every person I meet who curses, and frankly I don't think I'm supposed to go around judging people like that. I don't want to either. It's a waste of my time, and it's a loss of great relationships with great people. Am I supposed to ignore everyone who doesn't agree with me about everything? No. I know that people curse, I know it's reality, and characters are supposed to be realistic and believable. I've cursed plenty of times in the past. As a matter of fact, I've dropped the f-bomb in front of not only my mother but also several of her Christian friends. Oops. We're not perfect. That's a reality. Nobody is perfect, and neither are the characters in stories. And depending on the characters being written, the genre, and all of that, there are times, I think, when a character is simply going to curse.
Here's the problem that I've run into as I'm writing my first novel. I have written characters who would swear. These are government assassins (sci-fi thriller set in 2172) and they're not exactly the most moral of people. For the most part, I have skated around the words because I was so nervous about writing them. I simply used things like "he swears" "I curse" etc. It was working fine (I learned the trick from Dee Henderson's Truth Seeker -- a Christian character curses this way. It surprised me, but it worked, and it's a technique I've borrowed.) But a couple days ago, I was writing a scene towards the end of the story where my protagonist is beating up another character. She's angry, crying, and feeling betrayed. The most natural thing in the world would have been for her to call him a bastard. But I stopped myself, went back to the generic cursing, and had to make myself get over the disappointment of not giving in to the emotional intensity of the moment. Then, another scene came to mind yesterday, which is what started this whole discussion with my friend. I visualize my scenes in my head, like I'm watching a movie, and then I write them down. All of sudden yesterday, I could see and hear in my head one male character looking the female protagonist up and down and giving her an appreciative (she was in an evening gown) "Hot damn" with a lopsided smirk, making the protagonist blush red like an overripe strawberry. It was the most natural thing in the world, and there's not a way to skirt around that without losing some of the effect. I think it's funny, between these two characters it would be cute, and it would be perfect to throw into the sequel to this first novel. And I really want to write it! Knowing my characters like I do (I just admitted to hearing them in my head) this scene would be perfect for them. But do I use the curse word or not? Do I go back and edit the one scene in this first book and let my character have the emotional release not only of beating someone up but also of cursing at him?
I don't know yet. I haven't figured out whether reality and believability will win out over my fear of offending anyone, and God would be included on that anyone list. I'd love to hear your opinions. To some people, words are just words, and we shouldn't assign these vulgar meanings to them. To other people words have power and we should use them wisely. Where do you fall on the spectrum of no cursing, not even a mention to cursing every other word? Here are a couple of other authors' opinions (Dorathea, The Plot Point, has a comment at the end): http://jaimiedawn.blogspot.com/2010/03/flannery-factor.html I'll keep you posted on what I decide for myself.