Tuesday, July 10, 2012

To Swear or Not to Swear


By Jill Williamson

I’m not a fan of swearing in novels, even if it’s realistic. Why? First because it can be cliché. And second, because it’s unnecessary and it alienates a whole host of readers and publishers. A good writer can do so much better, in my opinion. And less is always more. So if you are going to use a curse word, save it for the perfect time when it will have the biggest impact. If you use them on every page, you’ll just turn people off.

That said, I still don’t use them. My preference. But my characters still curse every now and then. Fantasy is fabulous for this because you can create your own swear words or expressions, which helps make your storyworld more realistic. Here are some of mine from my medieval fantasy Blood of Kings trilogy.

For pretty much any swear word, my main character often yelled or muttered, “Pig snout!” No other characters used, “Pig snout!” That was strictly Achan’s catch phrase.

One of my knights who was from a desert land used the curse, “Fire and ash!” when he was angry.

Common phrase: “For goodness’ sake!” (or God or Christ) My phrase: “For Lightness’ sake!” (My land is half cursed in Darkness.) Or “For Cetheria’s hand!” (Cetheria is the goddess of protection.) And some of the knights used the phrase “Eben’s breath!” in the same way or as a general curse. (An Eben is an ugly giant.)

Common phrase: “I’ll be dam*ed.”  My phrase: “I’ll be stormed” or “I’ll be ransomed.” (In my storyworld “storming” is to be lost in a telepathic battle, and “ransomed” is to be saved by God.

For a “Thank goodness!” or “Thank God!” my female lead character used, “Joyful heart!” “Merciful heart!” or “Mercy!” Then men used "Thank Arman!" (Arman is the father god in my books.)

Some other phrases I used:

“I don’t give a pig’s eye about…”
“What in flames?”
“Blazes!”

In my current work in progress, a contemporary story, I have a teen guy who gets in trouble for swearing, so he’s trying to quit. Someone gives him the tip of making up his own swear words. So he starts using “Figs and jam!” and “Mother puss bucket!” Not sure if my publisher will let me get away with that or not… LOL (This just in: My husband tells me that I got "Mother puss bucket" from Ghostbusters. The subconscious is deep, my friends. Who knew?)

Here are some other curse words that you might recognize from books, TV, or movies. Can you guess the references? Click here for the answers.

zark
sweet mother of Artemis
son of a hamster
smoke you
oh, my prophetic soul
sleemo
mud blood
bit brain
cowpog
shiitake mushrooms
frak

And how about you? Ever make up your own oaths for your novels?

81 comments:

  1. I love how every SyFy show--and quite a few others now--have picked up Galactica's 'frak.' Makes me giggle every time.

    I just had to go through my MS and change out all my "What the devil?" instances, which were deemed too risky for the readership. Stephanie helped me come up with its replacement--what in thunder. I also favor "blast" and "blazes." Always a challenge to find authentic-sounding alternatives to cursing, but I'm with you--makes a story stronger!

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    1. "What in blazes?" does sound like something someone would realistically say. Something that annoys me in books is when an author makes up swears that I don't see people saying. It pulls me out of the story the same as if they had used swearing.

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    2. Good point, Allison. If it sounds silly, it doesn't help at all.

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    3. I believe "what in blazes" is an actual (rather dated) phrase...or else it gets used as a substitute frequently.
      I find that made-up swear phrases actually help pull me into a storyworld, because the way a character swears tells so much about them and the world they live in. If someone says "By the Lion's mane!" you know they come from Narnia. If someone uses "Frak" you know they've stepped out of Battlestar Galactica (or another sci-fi show). And different ethnicities in a story will have different phrases, and the sorts and frequency with which different characters use them tell us a lot about who they are.
      ~Amo Libros

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  2. I'm with you, where I'd rather have a novel that doesn't swear at all, even if it'd make an impact. It just seems tasteless a lot of the time when one of the characters will mutter an unpleasant phrase. That being said, I also do get, especially in cop shows and books, why the author feels the need to use swearing. As a girl who isn't a fan of swearing, but is wanting to write in the suspense/mystery genre, I wasn't sure how I was going to balance it. This post really helped! It gave me all kinds of creative ways to make my no swearing policy more of an unique advantage than a drawback. Thanks, Jill! :)

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    1. You're welcome, Clare!
      Have you ever read Lis Wiehl's books? They're pretty good mysteries and have no swearing. They're about women, too. A female FBI agent, a female prosecutor, and, in another series, a female psychologist who works for the DA, I think. Cool books.

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    2. One strategy I like (which J K Rowling used in Harry Potter) is to say: "So-and-so swore" or "So-and-So cursed under their breath". I like this method because it gets the image across without thrusting nasty language in the readers' faces.
      ~Amo Libros

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  3. Haha, LOL, Cant stop laughing!
    I've never made up my own. I usually just say 'he swore' etc, because I dont like reading or writing with swear words. A girl recently told me my story needs more cussing in it to be realistic...I think she missed the part where it's a christian story.
    You forgot 'Barzul' in your list! That's a dwarfish cuss word;)

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    1. Nice, Maddie!

      And your friend is wrong. Think about the bestselling YA novels. Most don't have any swear words--maybe one or two in their whole series. I'm talking Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Twilight, Divergent, Alex Rider, Uglies, etc... These are not books filled with cussing, and they're all selling just fine.

      And sorry I forgot Barzul! LOL

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    2. Yeah, I totally ignored her on that one.
      There really just isn't any need for cussing.
      Haha:)

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  4. A welcome post!! Thank you!! I don't really like swear words either (I agree, they can make a novel sound so cheap and tacky) but what's a character supposed to say in a exciting (or infuriating) situation?? This post gave me some great ideas. Thank you SO much.

    (I also like how you write posts without condemning options. Just giving positive suggestions. It's so refreshing to read!)

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    1. Agreed Cait! JK Rowling, Harry Potter author, only used swears when she wanted to dive home a point(like in the sixth book when Harry says that Snape didn't give a da** about his mom. Or because it would be in character for a certain character to swear--one character in the same book calls another character a sl** and while I don't approve, it did seem like something the character would do.) and I don't mind that, but it is annoying to see swearing used on every page. It interrupts the story.

      I had a scene once in a book where in the MC was in prison, and for the first draft, I let the prisoners swear... Because it seemed unrealistic for them not to and I needed to move the story forward. Now, if I was going to edit that story, I might brainstorm other ways for them to say the same thing, but for a first draft where only I will read it--it doesn't matter to me. I'll just bold it so I know it's there when I edit.

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    2. Thanks, Cait! I try. LOL

      I'm glad you got some good ideas. And I like your description of cussing in novels: "Cheap and tacky." Those are the perfect words. Plenty of readers like reading those kinds of book, though, and that's fine. But I want to try and do better, if I can.

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    3. Allison,
      Yes, less is more. Another fun trick is to let the swearer get interrupted right before the word is said. I did that recently in a book I've turned it. Zondervan probably won't let me keep it though, but my guy would have totally said it--even though he didn't manage to get the words out. He was SO MAD! But the implied words might be too much for my publisher. We'll see.

      Good idea bolding what you want to come back and take another look at. I highlight things for the same reason. Fix it later! Keep writing! Must! Reach! Word count!

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    4. I think J.K. Rowling used a fair amount of swear words, 'Bloody hell', 'git', 'piss off' and how can one forget Molly Weasley shouting 'Bitch' to Bellatrix Lestrange?
      She also made up certain curse/ swear words like 'Merlin's beard', 'Mudblood' and some more.
      I once read in an article that it uses a total of 13 curse words. I don't find it offensive. It just adds to the effect. So, time to get your creative juices flowing.
      Other than that, I don't like to read such words unless really necessary.

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    5. Yeah, I was trying to figure out if Merlin's Beard is "swearing" or not. I always read it as more of a "yikes" kind of phrase, if that makes sense. Maybe that was just me :)

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    6. Sometimes it hard for Americans to know if certain British words are swearing or not. But you're right, Keira, there were a few more in the later books.

      I love Merlin's beard. :-)

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  5. Sweet mother of Artemis (which is hilarious to say, lol) sounds like a Percy Jackson quote. Mudblood is from HP, and is a (for those not in the know.) a degatory term for a witch or wizard with no magical parents(aka mugggles)

    I only use swears in a first draft when I can't thInk of a replacement term and need to move the story forward.

    I'm writing a fantasy right now in another world, and I haven't even though of swears! Hm. It can say a lot about a society, what they swear on. Going back to the Mudblood reference, that shows that some wizards value parentage, others don't and find the term offensive. In our world, we also have bad names for people, and we also have words that are bad because... Because we're taught they're wrong?

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    1. Yep. I wrote a book once with a British girl in it, and I had her saying "bloodly" this and that all the time, which I thought was cute. Until I came to learn that "bloody" is a little more crass of a word than it is cute. But since I'm not British, I didn't know. So I took them all out. We have to be careful "swearing" in different languages. Are assumptions are usually totally wrong.

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  6. Yeah… I’m one of those people who would not read a book with swearing. =) It’s really, really nice when people just leave it out! To me words like “Rats” and “Shoot” are a lot better, even if they don’t quite convey the emotion that the writer wanted…. And yes, I agree, it takes more talent to show the characters feelings in other words.
    ~Aidyl

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    1. Me too, Aidyl. And for me, the biggest reason swearing bothers me so much is because of my childhood. It takes me back to family arguments I'd rather not think about. Which is sad, but--as authors, we need to be considerate about our readers. We don't know their life stories. And if we can do something small like this to help their enjoyment of our book, we should, I think. People who aren't bothered by swear words won't miss them. And people who want to read swear words would likely not want to read our books anyway.

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  7. The second last one is what Carmen used to say on spy kids aha. But yes, interesting post. I kind of block my ears when books have a lot of swearing (that's when I realize I can still hear. Oh the magic of books, messing with our senses!) because.. It just doesn't sound so nice, you know? Like you said, I reckon we can write a bit better than that. But then again in On Writing, Stephen king says hey, write how you talk.. So I suppose, like most things, it's an opinion thing.

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    1. Yes they are all opinions. And Stephen King does plenty of swearing in his novels, so his opinion is different from mine. AND he grew to popularity in the 80s when swearing was SO popular in movies (watch Goonies, for example). So take that into account. Each of us are shaped by our own childhoods and life experiences. And that makes us comfortable with different things.

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  8. Ok. I am now going to start using 'Sweet Mother of Artemis' in my own personal vocabulary. XD it's too hilarious and epic to pass up on.

    I don't have my characters do a lot of swearing, but one in particular does. But she mostly only goes to dammit and dang. But I don't let her get away with it. Another Certain character is going to always be on her heels about it...and she might quit. Maybe. Lol

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    1. Sweet Mother of Artemis is pretty funny.

      LOL! That's funny, Ashley!

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  9. In Ranger's Apprentice, some characters called Skandians say curses of their gods, like "Gorlog's beard". That became the favorite curse of one of the Araluens, Halt. I like how the author made up curses. Jonothan Stroud did it in Heroes of the Valley, too.

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  10. I don't like reading books with cursing. One I don't think I'm aloud to, and two I just don't like it. I'm not even a huge fan of when authors just state that a character cursed without using the word. I find that it tends to be overdone and that you already get a feel for the character without it.

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    1. If the author has done a good job on his character, you shouldn't need to even say that, Alyson. You can write the creepiest bad guy ever and never have a single bad word. It's all about the words you choose. *shivers just thinking about it* lol

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    2. A good example is the Homelanders series by Andrew Klavan. I LOVED the books, but I did feel like the 'he cursed' was overdone. I got a feel for the terrorists without it.

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    3. I LOVED THE HOMELANDERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  11. I use two swearwords in my duo, which is kind of weird because I don't ever say them, and it's just 'cause I haven't come up with anything more creative yet. But when reading, I'm more inclined to be okay with it if they're used sparingly and only in intense situations...and if they're mild. No f-bombs for me.

    I usually use "good" or "great" in front of things...like "good mercy!" or "great skies" or something like that.

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    1. Yeah. That F-word totally turns me off. (Reverts to childhood memories.)

      "Great skies!" makes me think of a steampunk novel where the main character works on an airship. Ha ha.

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    2. Well, the trickiest part (to me, anyway) is trying to find makeshift curses that fit the setting. Let me tell you, trying to find swearwords that aren't really swearwords for a dystopian setting is ridiculously difficult.

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    3. You can do it! I'm writing a dystopian right now. I took some words from 1920s slang that were fun for my storyworld. And I because there is a disease in my storyworld, calling someone a "flaker" is mean. Because their skin flakes from the disease. I think the trick is to brainstorm words from the creative differences in your storyworld.

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    4. I never thought of taking slang from a different time. That's genius!

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  12. In the movie "Pimpernel Smith" when Prof. Smith is questioned about the meaning of Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" he replies: "It can mean whatever you want it to mean. In fact, I sometimes use it in place of swear words."

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  13. And even if you make up your own swear words, you have to be careful not to overuse them. I read a Star Wars story where the author used all the made up swear words -- kriff, frak (also a SW word), karf, stang, plus some of the real world words -- so often in both dialogue and narrative that the story was no longer enjoyable. So it also comes down to balance. How many "swear words" are too many?

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    1. True. Battlestar overuses "frak" in my opinion. Be careful when you're editing and make sure you don't have too many!

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  14. I like the concept of making up new curse words. I do it often but I think it shouldn't be too out of concept that the reader doesn't understand it.

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    1. Good point, Keira. If the reader doesn't know what you're talking about, what's the point?

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  15. I usually just say "he/she/I swore." Then the reader can decide how drastic they want the language. At one point in my current WIP my main character says sarcastically, "I woke up to his potty mouth."

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  16. There are two times in my book when I "swear". I don't really think it's swearing though, because one of the times, someone says, "You look like you've been through hell." I don't honestly think that's really swearing, and it seems very descriptive to me to think of what someone who has been through hell would look like.

    Also, I love Sarah Dessen's books, and my mom has recently started reading them. We were talking about the swearing, of which there is a fair amount, and Mom said she's kind of okay with the character swearing because she doesn't swear all the time, but then we can see that the character is comfortable using swear words, and it says something about her character. So that's something to take into consideration. :)

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    1. That is something to take into consideration, Becki.

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  17. I automatically stop reading a book if there's any language past the d-word, which is unavoidable when you read plays such as 'My Fair Lady', for kicks. I admire authors more when they avoid any real language entirely. I once got 'Julie and Julia' out of the library, only to find a disturbing amount of f-bombs in the first chapter alone. Never picked it back up. Which was quite difficult, since I love the movie and baking.

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    1. Wow. That would have been surprising to me too, Lydia. I wouldn't have expected that from the movie. Interesting...

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  18. In my MS, I have I think 2 or 3 swear words, but that's it. It's kind of funny, as I have never sworn audibly, but for me it fits the story. I'm being careful not to go overboard, though.

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    1. THe ironic part, though, is that my seven-year-old brother has started swearing. Go figure.

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    2. LOL! Sometimes with boys, they feel like swear words are a rite of passage or manly or something. Which makes me laugh. It's like, uh... why?

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  19. "Oh, my prophetic soul. MY UNCLE!" OH MY GOSH THAT PLAY. THAT PLAY IS ONE OF THE MOST GORGEOUS WORKS OF WRITING THAT EXISTS ON THE PLANET.
    Yep.

    Hm, I was having trouble with this. I don't swear as a rule, but there was one time in my WIP where nothing else worked. I find that avoiding swearing when it's totally obvious what actually fits there can pop the bubble of suspension of disbelief. So I hesitantly let myself put it in. Just one for the whole thing. Idk. I still have moral battles over it! hahah.

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    2. Although, "my prophetic soul" - isn't that not so much of a swear replacement as a "I KNEW IT" thing? Like, "Dude, I totally predicted this. My soul is prophetic."

      Oh - oh, it's from Doctor Who? Who knew, lol! I love that show to bits. It's Classic, though, which I don't watch so much of. But I thought you were quoting Hamlet.

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    3. It can be a struggle, Michah. And in the end, it might be your editor who helps you decide whether or not to keep it or chuck it.

      I love Doctor Who's dialogue. It's fun to listen to him talk.

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    4. ehehe, yup, what with all the editors we get, us fanfiction writers XD (it's a non-permanent indulgence)

      I know, right? Best show ever.

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    5. I've had trouble with this too. I don't like swearing and I don't want it in my story, but I have come to one or two places where putting in any kind of substitute just wouldn't work. So I marked the spot and intend to come back to it later as a "may need to fix"

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    6. I had a short story where one character was so angry, struggling so hard to stay in control, that the 'f' word was really just so appropriate. Especially as it was a character who tended to act without thinking. :-)

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  20. I'm definitely not a fan of swearing - not that I read books like that (quite hardly). I think I've read 1 or 2 books with swearing. It just turns me off. For example, my favourite book series ever (in my opinion, beats HP), Fablehaven is such an epic fantasy with absolutely no sign of swearing or anything inappropriate. The size of the series is about the same size as HP and I gobbled the whole set up in 2-3weeks! :)
    Anyways, I love the idea of creating better alternatives of cuss words, making your setting more realistic. Swearing is an unnecessary use of words. I mean, you can have a best selling novel without all the course language and yet so many people would love it! You an also express a character's feelings in other ways.

    Anyhow, thanks for the great post! :)

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    1. You're welcome, Writer_At_Heart! You can write without it. You absolutely can, and be wildly successful. You're right. :-)

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  21. shiitake mushrooms.
    That made me laugh out loud... I'm going to guess spy kids?

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  22. Loved this post! I agree -- you should only have characters swear in books if it makes sense for the character and adds emphasis to what they are saying. If it is used casually and frequently, it's a distraction and just not classy.

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  23. What about crap and dang, words that arent really 'swear words'? Do those fall into the same category? Does that turn people off?

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  24. What about crap and dang, words that arent really 'swear words'? Do those fall into the same category? Does that turn people off?

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  25. Wow, this is so totally creative. A former pastor used to "make up" his own curse words but they were generally in the form of gobbledy-gook. These are more entertaining. :)

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  26. This is why I write fantasy :) So much easier to make up things like that when the need arises, which doesn't happen to often to me unless my character stubs his toe or hurts himself.

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  27. I use crap, heck and dang, because I write sci-fi, but it does seem like at some time my characters would say the actual words though I just say "he cursed" but even that limits me. Any advice? I agree with most people that cursing left and right does get tacky. I had that problem in Max Ride and Inkheart. It got annoying after while. :P

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  28. In general I agree with you, but sometimes I feel like authors are trying too hard to keep their books "clean." Like, the bullies calling the mentally disabled kid a "moron" because the author didn't want to say "retard" or something worse. Not very realistic...

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  29. Lol I can't help but think of Spongebob: Tartar sauce! Fish paste! Aww, barnacles! Also, I found the way they handle the scene in A Christmas Story where Ralphie drops the F-bomb to be very endearing; they keep it clean by having Ralphie say "Fudge," but then the narrator reveals that it was in fact "the big one" (also, in general, what a great narrative voice!) I also love when Ralphie's mom calls his friend's (can't remember the name) mom and you hear her freaking out through the telephone, lol. In a way I think it's more interesting and effective, especially in books (or movies!) geared toward a younger audience, to use techniques like that to convey the sense of a swear and the consequences without actually using the word. I must admit though, I do love my Spongebob swears :)

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  30. I used a language divide in a recent work to have some quite severe swearing without actually penning the words. :-) A secondary character was being assaulted by a tertiary character and so she let rip in her own tongue. The protag knew the swearer's language the best and commented in narration how the perp's mother didn't deserve to be called what she did.

    It lets the reader imagine the words without me having to distract the reader with something possibly suitable. Or perhaps too suutable!

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  31. I have a question, and I hope somebody hasn't already asked this, but what if they're teenagers? Because most teenagers in the world DO curse...unfortunately. My WIP is a story that takes place in modern times and revolves around a teen girl and her five friends, the guy she likes and his girlfriend. I don't like swearing, and my MC doesn't swear. She sometimes says "Crap" or... "h3ll" but that's about it. The other characters are all British and Irish (besides the guy she likes throughout most of the story)! They seem to curse more. I don't use cursing a lot and the only major one's I do use are "b!tch" and "b@st@rd" but that's it. Another thing I do is just cut the curse word off, like this- "You son of a bi-" and then somebody interrupts them are talks over them. Is it a turn off if I still use those words? It's not often, but even when I write a curse word I feel bad and like I'm pushing away certain readers. I really don't know what my question was here xD

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  32. Great post! Shiitake mushrooms is one of my favorites :) I had to think about using swearing in my WIP, and eventually had an epiphany. My characters live in a post-apocalyptic city, and their main enemies are packs of feral dogs. So rather than swear, they snarl or growl. Yeah, I thought I was pretty clever with that >.>

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  33. A little late to the party, but to add to your list, I wanted to mention the (AFAIK highly mispronounced) Chinese swearing that they use in Firefly. It's even worked right into the culture - they wrote in a limited amount of Chinese phrasing for non-swearing as well just to give the overall cultural influence feel. Very fascinating.

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  34. I'm many months late to this post, but I want to mention the master of creative swearing- Captain Haddock from Tintin! 'Blistering barnacles!' and 'Seven hundred suffering samurais!'

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  35. Haha, Unknown, I'm way too late too but who cares. My characters don't have any made-up swears but I do! "son of a nosferat" or "son of Sergej" by far my favourites. Anyone read Lili St Crow's Strange Angels series? You can tell I don't like Christophe, can't you? ;)

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  36. Talking of made up swear words, I use the word 'groan' in daily life when I'm really annoyed. My favourite author, Terry Pratchett, uses very mild swear words but since I don't dwell on them, I don't mind too much. That said, he is the only author I read who uses swear words and he is an adult writer.
    There is a brilliant scene in one of his books where the main character picks up a newspaper in the post office (which he owns) and finds that his enemy has made his move. His thoughts are inturrupted before they get too rude because he looks up and realises he's been swearing aloud by the shocked looks on his employees faces.
    It does require a lot of creativity to not just write out all the swear words you know but it is definately worth it. To not at least try and be creative, like in the above scene, is simply lazy.

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