Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Age-Old Dilemma - To Curse or Not To Curse

     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 (, 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):  I'll keep you posted on what I decide for myself.


  1. As a Christian who writes for both Christian and mainstream, I avoid it. It can be implied without being explicit. I figure part of what I'm supposed to do is be different. Cursing and vulgarity are common today -- but even in your typical workplace, people still find it offensive.

  2. My novels aren't filled with curse words and I rarely use them, but they are here and there in some of my work. My main character doesn't curse. It's just not her character, but sometimes her brothers do, and sometimes her momma does (although her stepmother never does)...

    I believe in doing what we can live with in our own heart and gut. I believe in being simply human! But, I am no longer a church-going person, so maybe I'm not an expert on this! However, I used to be a church-goign person and I can tell you that people sometimes curse, even preachers *laugh*

  3. Glynn, thanks for your comment! It's really helpful for me to hear from somebody who writes for both mainstream and Christian audiences. You're right -- we are supposed to be in the world and not of it, great point. It's funny, after posting this earlier, I had to explain to a class of five year olds at church why it's not okay to flip the bird. It made me think a little more about why I thought my characters "needed" to curse. From the mouths of babes, I guess. :)

    Kathryn, thanks so much for commenting! It's good to hear from someone who does sprinkle these words in. It does depend on the character, like you pointed out. My protagonist is like yours, she's not the one most likely to curse, and it's only something that's really come up in the two instances I described in the post. It's true, even preachers drop a curse word every now and again! :) We are all human after all. I guess for me, the issue is deciding not how human my characters are, but how much of their humanity and failings I'm willing to show explicity.

  4. For me it depends on how I want the reader to percieve a particular character. Either their personality or their situation at the moment. Not unlike how in Spanish telenovelas the bad guys smoke, and it seems to me in some Bond 007 movies the good guys drive BMWs and the evil ones drive the Mercedes. Of course those are extremes and a bit cartoonish.

    However, when I've performed as a stand-up comic, I write my material from the perspective that comedy for adults does not have to have curse words or vulgarity of any sort, and to do so indicates a lack of creativity, or just plain laziness.
    Jennifer Perry (Bark Of Love blogspot)

  5. Jennifer, thanks for commenting! The perception of the character is a great factor to consider. It's true, in television and film, especially for kids, I think, there are certain conventions that character types meet. The bad guy has the scars, the good guy wears white, etc. And for some characters, at least in my story, they're just the type of character that would swear, and that's how I want them to be perceived by the readers. I want my characters to be realistic, and to seem truly human.

    I can definitely appreciate that you don't rely on vulgarity for your comedy. I think there are always other ways to express things without crossing the line into poor taste. It's much more impressive to me when people can be funny or express themselves in any way without resorting to curse words.

  6. I say be true to characters and story. If you're writing about bad guys who kill, they'll probably curse. Not murdering is a commandment, but does that mean you can't write about it?

    Stephen King in his book On Writing states if you use a filler word when your character would swear, it's not authentic.

    I write YA, so I think long and hard before I decide to use one. And if I have an editor one day, I'll have to think long and hard again.

  7. Theresa, thanks so much for reading and commenting! You have a great point -- I'm certainly not worried about including murder in my book. :)

    Authenticity is one of my biggest concerns with this issue. In many ways, it seems like a cop out to have built up these characters as ruthless assassins and then have them say "heck" -- which is why, so far, they haven't really said anything. I've just said that they're saying bad words, without telling the reader what those words are. But I always feel like I'm restraining the characters. It's almost a catch-22 between a writer's perspective and a Christian's.

    I wish you the best of luck with your YA writing! And I have to say, I applaud your careful consideration of your word choices in light of your audience. Here's to one day having an editor to make us think even harder about our lightning bolt word choices! :)

  8. I guess it depends on what is important to you. Is being a writer first and foremost. If that is the case then you must write accordingly. If being a follower of Christ, then you have to live according to a standard that He sets and not the world.

    It is not an easy issue my dear friend; we each struggle daily.
    keep me posted how it works out

  9. Thanks for reading and commenting! That is the choice I'm facing -- character-minded writer or profanity-free Christian. I will definitely keep everyone posted as to how this decision runs its course and what I decide. Thank you for the encouragement! :)

  10. You're in quite a fortunate position: The book takes place in 2172. The English language is still evolving, and by the time that year rolls around, the cuss words we have today may not even be part of the common vernacular. Joss Whedon handled this problem in the show Firefly by making the characters say "gorram" and then swearing in Mandarin...but they always said stuff like, "Oh, for the love of diarrhetic (sp?) elephants" and stuff like that. And instead of "we're effed," characters said, "we're humped".

    This is a GREAT opportunity to be creative in how your characters express profanity... and you can do it in a way that doesn't require selling out your beliefs. :)

  11. Giles, if I could, I would hug you. I would at least give you a high five. (I'll explain how excited those statements show that I really am in a later blog) I can't believe I forgot one of my favorite parts of all of the Star Wars novels: "Sith spawn" and "Sith spit" are the cuss words of the galaxy far far away. Your suggestion is a huge help; thanks for reminding me that it's my future world, and my future English. :) Thanks for reading, commenting, and following! And thanks for pointing out the happy profanity medium.

  12. I'm another Christian writing for the mainstream, and if the occasional curse word comes naturally to a character while I'm writing, I let it stay. But I make a point of avoiding swearing (and sex scenes!) wherever I can.

  13. Jane, thanks so much for reading and commenting! Thanks for sharing your technique! It helps to know that other writers understand this issue from both sides of the equation. I try to avoid it, but sometimes it just comes up. I don't write explicit sex scenes either. Writing kiss scenes makes me blush. *laughs* It's a fun exercise, though; I like to see how I can describe the kiss in a different way so that it's not graphic but the emotions still come across.

  14. I went to war twice in Iraq. The Army has many types of personalities who are all forced to get along and accomplish some common task. There are various regulations that determine the appropriateness of different common activities and behaviors, especially in certain roles; but the biggest rule that everyone always has to follow is to get along for the mission's sake. Still, not everyone does in the end. Now, if I were to write about my experiences by doing a fictional story (representational stuff) I'd have to ask myself some questions first. To determine my theme, plot, and what kinds of characters I'd use to progress everything along, I'd have to know my own intentions. Am I going for absolute historical realism? Or am I trying to portray a certain idea?
    You can bet there is plenty of swearing in the Army. If I'm Christian, can I not swear along with my comrades and use the common speech of the male in combat? If I do swear, does this make me less Christian? If I don't swear because I have personal values that I'd like to upkeep, does anyone care? Would my experience be any different?
    The truth is that if I hadn't been potty mouthed in Iraq, no one would have noticed. I may have still felt left out or something, but people only care and start to notice a difference between you and them when you start advertising it, like telling them it bothers you when they swear.
    My whole point here is that it doesn't matter if you swear or not except in the instance that you care about it. Whether in writing or speech, in public or private. I'd like to see someone tell me that I shouldn't swear because I am Christian. I'd tell them they should defend and serve the cross with their blood, sweat and tears, then I'll call them Christian. What comes out of your mouth is what's in your heart, and cursing here and there doesn't mean you have no love in your heart, only that there is also some sin (by the way, Christians are supposed to all be self identified sinners). Anyway, that's my position and it may not be right for everyone.
    No matter what kind of writing you go for, the key is to figure out what position is right for you; whether you do what others tell you or act independently, you are still responsible for your own choices. I hope this helps somehow.

  15. First, Ben, this Marine's daughter would like to thank you for your service to our country. Second, thank you so much for reading and commenting. The reply that I have is too long for a comment response -- who knew Blogger had a 4,096 character limit :) -- so I have decided to post my reply as my newest blog post. Thank you for the time and thought that you put into your response. You made me think about the positions that I have and why I have them, which I appreciate. I enjoyed answering and I appreciate the inner dialogue you started for me as I worked through the answer I wanted to give to the questions you raised. Thanks again for reading and commenting! It is always appreciated.

  16. While I'm living (and speaking) on the other side of curse fence, i feel your trouble and can't resist taking a bite into the dilemma.

    First thing, when you're writing fiction, you're writing words of other people - your characters. In a way, it's not that you dropped the hard words, it's them. And if you have a character that is into swearing, you'd be untruthful to them not to give them those words. As a result, they'd become fake and hard to believe. Nobody wants those in the novel. Sailors just don't talk like vicars do and vice versa.

    Replacing the actual word with "he swore" doesn't really cut, at least not for me. Those words are being used because of their intensity. Referring to them indirectly is just describing the situation and not painting it. And good novel is a painting not a description.

    On the other side stands your argument that you shouldn't make another believer stumble. But then, that makes you significantly filter your characters and plot. Then you don't just have to filter their words, but also their actions and probably the whole plot. Which leads you to completely different genre.

    One thing that crossed my mind is that your novel is happening in 2172. Question is whether and how will people swear in 2172. Those words are getting their emotional charge in social taboos, most of them related to sex. Now, will the taboos be the same in almost a century? or there will be some other taboos? Or none at all?

  17. Dandellion, thank you so much for reading and commenting! I welcome any opinion on this dilemma! :)

    You have articulated many of my issues as a writer with leaving the curse words out. I don't want my characters to become fake. I have read books, especially of the faith genre, where the characters become ridiculous because they are so idealized and perfect. I don't want that for any book I write, whether this mainstream novel or any faith-genre book I may write in the future.

    I like the way you describe a good novel as a painting, not a description. Very true. As I'm editing the fleshing out the world, I'm actually reexamining every instance where I have written "he swore" and each moment I thought a character might have used a curse word. You're the second person to bring up the time period my novel is set in, and I'm so glad! One of the fun things about futuristic settings is being able to recreate the world according to my rules. I'm looking at what sort of curse words would be used, and whether they would be the same ones we use today in 2010.

    The point you bring up about filtering the plot as well as the words is interesting. Oddly enough, I have let these characters run rampant throughout this book and while they get themselves into some funny (not haha) situations, the cursing is the only thing they've done that's caught me off guard. I say that truthfully because I don't plan any of my plot. I just let it happen as it happens; I've never been able to use an outline. But you have a point -- how much of this story do I plan on filtering because these characters aren't following the ten commandments? Zero to none, I'll admit.

    For me, this is something of a catch-22: follow the rules of writing or follow the rules of writing as a Christian. And they may not seem that different, but I'm finding the gap between them is huge in many instances. Thank you so much for giving me another perspective; I appreciate your thoughtful input!


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