Monday, December 3, 2012

Should We Use Foul Language in Our Stories and What is A Grawlix?

The answer to the first question rests solely on you and your conscience. How comfortable are you writing profanity? Is it against your moral principles? Do you use it yourself? Do you include it for “artistic” reasons? Do you think profanity is disrespectful to other people? Also consider this: are we in charge of reflecting the present culture, reporters of fact, or do we want to act as filters for our society? All of these are questions you can answer rather easily.

There is a lot of history for the use of foul language. Shakespeare used it often (“Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!”) The naughty Lady of Bath uttered a very bad word in Canterbury Tales! But, then go back and read books by Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet and see how eruditely they handled it. We understood the characters and scenes without profanity.

After you answer the questions in the first paragraph, the next question to ask is who is your audience? Are you trying to appeal to readers who like Jack Reacher, the ex-solider MP character in Lee Child’s books or Father Kavanagh in Jan Karon’s charming stories set in the small town of Mitford?

The next answer to seek is does it work for your character?  Would your character actually say these things in a scene? Is she or he at a party on the beach with adult friends or is he whispering to his wife in church? Does the situation call for it? Is she angry or upset enough to swear?

There are several ways of handling profanity besides ignoring it. An author can choose to use replacement words like jerk, heck, or gosh. Freakin’ and friggin’ have crept into more common use for the usually abhorred f-word. Or, a scene could read something like
            “The aliens surprised me with the abduction and I silently swore at them as they encapsulated my body.”

Another way is to use a grawlix. A grawlix is a series of typographical marks that represent letters in a profane word.  Mort Walker invented the term in 1964. He is the author of the comic strips Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois. Cartoonists are using grawlixes more frequently than story writers.

Asterisks and disemvoweling are two other methods of using swearing without using the exact words. Asterisks have caught on to suggest the rest of the letters in a profanity---s***---for example. Disemvoweling is a neologism that is defined as removing all the vowels in a word as a measure of censure. It is used most often is texting---Grt 2 c u---but can be used in main stream stories to replace swear words or on car license plate---“PGCME” on an obstetrician’s BMW for instance.

On a final note, swearing is of two natures: religious or vulgarisms. We all have taught our children that certain words are “bathroom” words used only in that context and not in other circumstances or locations. It has always seemed to me to say “Oh my God” or “OMG” is a form of religious swearing, but to a few billion people around the world, it is just another phrase to describe amazement.

Cole Porter wrote in 1934
 “Good authors, too, who once knew better words
Now only use four letter words writing prose.
Anything goes!”


Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I adhere to the philosophy voiced by Violet Grantham (Maggie Smith) on Downton Abbey: "Profanity is no substitute for wit."

I very rarely use profanity in real life and don't foresee needing to use it in my writing, but then again I write for inspirational and "family-friendly" markets.
As a reader I don't blanch at an occasional mild expletive, but I will stop reading a book that is laced with profanity. It distracts me from the story.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

This is an ongoing discussion in my writing critique group, esp. concerning YA literature. Some writers insist that today's YA market expects profanity and think that a story seems unrealistic without it. Others say that just because profanity is "normal" for today's youth doesn't mean that a writer must use it, and maintain that a good story shouldn't NEED profanity to hold readers' attention. Passionate viewpoints on both sides.

Jennifer Rova said...

I love Maggie Smith's line! Some say use of profanity is a lack of a good vocabulary. Others think it is laziness. A friend said he doesn't swear because it is too hard to remember two vocabularies.

Its use does seem to be growing. To me, it is a sign of the further decline of society, lack of parental guidance, wanting to be thought "cool" for both children and young adults and a lack of respect for other people.

Thanks for you input, Jenny. I agree with you, like, uh, totally man.