“This girl has a mouth like a trucker!” That was one of the comments I got last month from an editor working on a short story of mine. Also last month, my agent complained that my heroine in my new sekrit paranormal project “drops the f-bomb a lot.” She wanted me to tone it down. Pointed out a place or two where she wanted my heroine to have a better line than just “Fuck!”
Can she be more articulate here? my agent wondered. And I toned down the swearing in the short story and the new project. I didn’t feel like I was going against the character of either one of my heroines in doing it. In other words, while it felt natural for my heroines in these projects, it didn't feel central to either of their characters. And, a more articulate line really did work better than that “Fuck!”
Whenever I get into trouble with a plot or not knowing what to do, my mantra is always, resort to character, go to the character. But that doesn’t really work with swearing. I mean, there are some characters in my books who have to be swearers, and I would fight for every one of their fucks. Simon, a reckless secondary character, is big on swearing, and it’s part of his personality.
But, with characters who I'm not trying to carve out as tough or edgy, I just think it’s not as easy as saying, would this character swear or not?
For example, I’m not tough or edgy at all, but I swear a lot, especially around people I know well, and between my husband and me, “fucking” and “fuck” are interchangeable with nine hundred different words. So, it kind of gets in when I’m writing dialogue for any character. It just feels natural.
But, if I was playing myself in an urban fantasy or paranormal novel, I don’t think I’d be a big swearer, even though I swear a lot in real life. Isn’t that weird? I was thinking about that a lot this week.
Like most authors, when I’m writing speech for a character, I’m not actually going for realism, or else every other word would be um, you know, fuckin’ kinda, er. And things would be muddy and circuitous and 90% of dialogue wouldn’t even be real sentences, and stuff would refer to stuff two sentences ago and you’d be like, Huh? I mean, some people are well spoken in real life, but most aren’t if you really listen. So in writing dialogue, you’re going for the impression of realistic speech, but you’re not really delivering realistic speech.
So what I realized is that sometimes, having a heroine say something like “I’m so fucking tired” is the kind of lazy realism in speech that needs to be tightened up on a second draft. But other times, having a heroine say, “I’m so fucking tired” is an important way to characterize that heroine.
In my real-life world, fuck is just another word like any. But in character dialogue, it’s not. The way I was using fuck for my heroine’s dialogue in these new projects was more out of a kind of lazy naturalism than out of characterization. That was kind of an interesting thing to get to this week.
In Mind Games, my heroine Justine doesn’t use the word fuck at all (I think! I’m too fucking lazy to look!) That was more because I was a debut author and I was uptight about people disliking her - she was already a vigilante who was psychologically attacking people, after all. In Double Cross, she says it a few times, but not a ton, and that was because I didn’t want to make some radical change in her dialogue. So, her not saying fuck much was more reactive, not a thought-through policy.
Now I have one. When I make a heroine all Fuck this, and What the fuck! it needs to be a conscious choice, and not just because it feels natural to me, because fuck is such a weirdly defining word! And even when it seems like it's working as dialogue naturalism, it's actually working as characterization.
Fuck keys by Jeremy Foo