Creative Cursing in Fiction

Sometimes, a fictional character has a personality that includes swearing. When the character needs to swear in the dialogue, the author is faced with a dilemma: Should the author use real four-letter words, which some readers may find offensive, or find a creative way to achieve a similar effect?

The answer may depend on the audience. Some readers prefer the real word to be used instead, while some readers find the actual words offensive. For teen books, the views of their parents are important, too. The better you understand your target audience, the easier it is for you to decide which will may have a better impact on sales.

Many traditionally published books have found creative ways for characters to swear.

One way is to replace a typical curse with another expression. For example, if you want to say, “You $%#@-ing moron!” you could write, “You flaming moron!”

It has to fit the character and genre. For some personalities, it would be okay to say, “Great bazookas!” instead of, “&#$@!” However, in some cases this wouldn’t suffice.

Another option is to use a milder oath, like “Shucks!” or “Golly!” instead of “%#&@!” Don’t exercise this option if it does an injustice to the character. Many characters won’t get away with an oath like “Fiddlesticks!”

You could try making up your own words, like “Oh fuzzlewuzzles!” Both the sound and look of the word must fit the character in order to pull this off. Just imagine Bruce Willis saying that in Die Hard! (There’s an example where any substitution wouldn’t have had nearly the effect that his famous line had. Again, you really have to know your audience.)

Yet another alternative is to use an ordinary word with very similar spelling, like ‘buck’ or ‘crab.’ Beware: The first time the reader sees this (perhaps, in the Look Inside), he or she may be thinking that the author simply misspelled the word (since it’s off by only one letter) – thinking, maybe, “If you can’t even spell the four-letter words right, this must be a horribly edited book.” It will take a little repetition to convince the reader (who may give up before it repeats) that it was intentional. Also, differing only by a letter, it may be too obvious – perhaps using the real word or something more different is better.

Occasionally, a writer states something of the sort, “Insert favorite expletive here.” This can only be used rarely, and only in an exceptional context.

Arguably the best oaths ever were written by Shakespeare, who didn’t need any four-letter words at all. Those oaths were loaded with creativity, and could really make a person look bad. Again, such curses probably won’t suit most characters and genres.

Those are some examples of creative cursing. Do you have experience with this? Or can you think of other ways to do it?

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

15 comments on “Creative Cursing in Fiction

  1. Oh what a good topic. I was once upon a time working on a novel with someone and our main character was in a gang in New York City in the eighties and we actually got in a disagreement about swearing. For me to be true to the character it would make sense if she swore. He was like but yeah I don’t want my parents seeing me write something like that. We never did solve that dilemma as life happened and we couldn’t work on it anymore.

  2. I ran into an interesting dilemma not that long ago dealing with curses… I had a character who needed a curse-phrase to use.. problem was that she’s neolithic.. and I didn’t feel comfortable using more modern curses. So, I looked up the origins of curse words in tribal, 3rd-world situations and discovered they often cursed with animal parts. Hence “Baboon tits!” became my character’s new favorite curse-phrase.

  3. Out of respect for your sensibilities Chris, I will refrain from that type of language, but personally I prefer to see the real words used as that is part of real life for me. This is just how people talk, and more so these days.

    • One great thing about self-publishing is that the author can use those words freely without an editor changing them. But self-published or not, whether or not to use the actual words should be primarily based on the views of the target audience (at least, from a sales perspective).

      • I agree, from a sales perspective you need to consider your audience. I was just viewing this as a reader and my personal preference. That may not suit everyone, certainly.

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