A funny thing about fuck

“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. 

Images: F images by ACF from wikimedia
Fuck keys by Jeremy Foo


B.E. Sanderson said…
The thing, for me, about the word 'fuck' is that it has to flow with the rest of the story. If the writer's just throwing it in for effect, I can tell and it's jarring. As a writer, I don't think I've dropped the f-bomb a half dozen times in as many books, but I was guilty of sprinkling 'sunuvabitch' throughout my last WIP. (Yes, typed just like that because when the MC says it, it's all one word.) I know I needed to trim a lot of it's occurrences - and for the same reasons.

BTW, I'm looking forward to reading Double Cross. Tight now it's languishing in my TBR pile. So many books, so little time. =o\
Mario Acevedo said…
Well fuck me. Really.
Dana said…
Carolyn Crane said…
BE: thanks for this comment! LOL on your sunuvabitch, though I do like that spelling and I can see how it would be awesomely characterizing!

Mario: LOL. fuck on, dude!

Day: Snort. Thanks!
Leigh said…
I'm working on a MS right now where there are multiple POVs, and one of those people has the worst potty mouth... ever. I mean, I was in the Navy and I don't swear as much as this guy does!

I was going through the MS a few nights ago, and I decided that even though he's got a potty mouth in my head, he probably shouldn't have such a potty mouth on paper.

But overall, I like the F-Bomb. So much so that I accidentally drop it when I'm at work. Oops. :)

But, like BE Sanderson said - if it flows with the rest of the story, I'm okay with it.
Carolyn Crane said…
Leigh: yes, interesting point. A little bit does go a long way, once you've committed to using it. Thanks for dropping by!
Penny Watson said…
Next time your editor tells you to find an alternative word for fucking, try these....

belly-bumpin' (that's a good 19th c. one!)

She'll be super impressed with your expanded vocabulary! :^)
Anonymous said…
"(I think! I’m too fucking lazy to look!)" LOL Love it!!

Also - Penelope's alternative words to fuck are gold!
Carolyn Crane said…
Penelope: A woman who knows her dirty alternatives! That's great. I do like belly bumpin.

Pamela: LOL. Sad but true.
Your love of fuck (the word) is one of the reason I like you so much! I'm still heaving deep breaths after reading this post. Holy hell, woman, that was comedic gold.

I can't say fuck as much as I used to. The small child tends to repeat what I say, and having him look at his dad and say, "Are you fucking insane?" doesn't go over well, hahaha.
Chris said…
But keep in mind, if you have a character freshly released from military service, he or she might be unable to speak without saying "fuck" ever other word. I was that person. :D
Carolyn Crane said…
Jackie: LOL. It sounds funny here in the comments of the blog, the idea of your son saying that, but I can imagine it wouldn't be in real life!

Nicole: I like YOUR fucks!

Chris: Well, you've sure cleaned up your act, sister!
Robert Wilson said…
I feel the hardest part of writing is coming up with characters who have no personality traits in common with the author. Great blog. very informative...

and on that note: fuck, fuckity, fuck fuck fuck!
Unknown said…
Heh, I blogged about this topic recently too -- what does your characters choice of swear words say about them?

I'm particularly fond of Kim Harrison's pixie Jenks, whose swears are all obscene Disney-fairy references, such as "Tink's Tampons!"

As for real life, the f-bomb is mission-critical to our internal communications, heh.
Jill Sorenson said…
Well, fuck! I struggle with this also. When my characters swear too much and all use the same phrases, I feel like I'm being repetitive and not making them unique. In the project I was just working on, I noticed that I had one hero say "Jesus" a lot while the other was always muttering "Christ!"

I know I could do better in giving each character an individual voice, rather than just putting words in their mouths that I tend to use frequently.
Anonymous said…
Great fucking article, or is this a fucking blog? Anyway, I fucking laughed and laughed at this shit. I don't cuss much, but I'm fuckin gonna start now!Ha.
In all seriousness Thank-you for a lite, yet deep look into character building. Well fucking done.
A. J. Larrieu said…
I once read a blog post (can't remember where) that suggested having characters curse is lazy, as in, they should be "more articulate." But sometimes it's necessary! I struggle with knowing the difference. This is a great take on how to make curses count. Thanks!
Carolyn Crane said…
Robert: I know what personality trait WE share!

KB: !!!

Nicola: Ooh, I have to go see that post. Yes, mission critical over here, too...unless my mom is visiting.

Jill: Funny. I've overused Christ. There is so much to keep track of in differentiating characters. I once decided I'd have a character always say "Cripes" but my CP - yes, that one - was like, do people really say that? And, I think no. But now I've started to!

Devonswars: Oh, thank you kindly for that fucking awesome compliment!

AJ: Hey, thanks so much. It was helpful myself to write this, because I hadn't ever really worked it out for myself in my head, and I had the same struggle.
Christine Rains said…
Great post. I'm overly conscious about swearing in my stories at times, but if it fits the character, I don't mess with their foul mouth. I had an editor once tell me that women in real life actually swear very little or not at all, and a foul mouth made my protagonist unbelievable. I swore (silently) and disagreed. A lot of my female friends swear as much as the guys.
Rev. Bob said…
Nicola: There's a very definite reason for Jenks's cursing, which gets revealed in Pale Demon.

I tend to stay away from "fake fucks" - I mean, cripes, who the frak uses those friggin' words in real life? Sure, there are some, and to me that reveals a facet of their personality. It's a layer of reserve that sounds right on some people, but not on, say, a drill sergeant. Of course, then there are the inventive types who are a joy to write and entertaining as hell to hear or read...

Bottom line, to me: know your fuckin' character, and if he doesn't sound authentic, trust that...whichever way it goes.

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