Zounds! Swearing in Fantasy

Posted on September 23rd, 2007 in opinion, Uncategorized

Here’s one we can all get our teeth into. An issue that comes up from time to time, and one that looks as if it will come up a bit more for me since publication in America, is that of the use of ‘modern’ swear-words in fantasy.

Blast my potty-mouth, it gets me in all kinds of trouble. Since sensitive souls may well stumble upon this particular post, I will use asterisks to spare their blushes.

John, over at Grasping for the Wind, is having a very polite, dignified and well-thought out discussion with my American editor, Lou Anders on this very topic, and he’s taken his recent reading of The Blade Itself as his starting point. So naturally I thought I would throw in my obscene, over-dramatic and ill-considered thoughts.

There was an interesting discussion of this very issue (which again started with a reading of The Blade Itself , blast my potty-mouth again) over at SFFWorld a while back. Some of the objections raised to swearing there (and I underline that these are not necessarily John’s objections) were: that these are ‘modern’ swear-words out of context in a ‘ye olde’ fantasy setting, that you’re better off making up a culture-specific oath like ‘by the holy orb of Zalxoz I will destroy thee!’, that you can just make up your own non-offensive word to substitute for the evil English creations (like BSGs frel, for example).

So allow me to viciously destroy this straw-man I have myself created, by repeating parts of the post I made there:

The notion that ‘folks all spoke nice in them old days’ is entirely a Victorian invention. The three words that I believe we are chiefly talking about here (F**K, S**T, and C**T, forgive my euphemisms) are all words with long and proud traditions in the english language, going back hundreds of years.

Of course, fantasy is not history. Fantasies can include all kinds of different elements corresponding to different time periods. Furthermore, even if we are describing a pseudo-medieval setting, no-one could pretend that we are writing for a medieval audience. As I see it, an author has to select the mode of expression which he feels best communicates his meaning, or the meaning of his characters, to a reader of modern English. It’s a question of judgement, and, as with the explicitness of sex or violence in a book, every author will find his own way, and different readers will have their own unique response.

For me, as a reader, I find complicated oaths (by the holy beard of Swarfega etc.) to be unconvincing (and often truly risible) unless very well integrated into some specific element of a fantasy culture, and even then they are rarely a good substitute for a simple S**T in times of high excitement. When I stub my toe I very rarely reach for a culture-specific mouthful such as, “by the golden boots of David Beckham!” or some such.

To make up a word simply to act as a substitute for a perfectly good English word seems to me almost cowardly, and as a reader I would find it extremely irritating. After all, if frel or whatever is supposed to mean F**K, why not just call a spade a spade? And if it doesn’t mean F**K, then what the f**k is it supposed to mean? I can see the point if it means a TV show can air before the watershed, but I can’t for the life of me see the point in an adult work of fiction.

Take that, you straw motherf*cker!

But seriously.

For me, the inclusion of swearing isn’t about trying to inject grittiness, or to make my books adult, or even to try and make them sell (though that would be nice). It’s a question of honesty. You see, when I started writing, my Mum said to me, “Joe, you’ve got to be honest. You’ve got to think about every description, every line of speech, every image that you use and ask yourself – is this true? Is this how that thing really looks? Is this how a person would really speak? Keep everything absolutely true, and you can never go far wrong.” Best piece of advice I’ve ever had. Apart from don’t eat yellow snow, of course.

Now some folks might say, “hey, it’s fantasy, it doesn’t have to be real,” but I’d say the exact opposite. It’s happening in a made up place, so it has to be more real than ever. Its being fantasy doesn’t forgive its being unconvincing, its being dishonest, its being false. Between you (which of course is potentially the entire world, but f*ck it) and me, I think fantasy is a genre where authors get away with weak-ass, lazy dialogue way too often.

It goes without saying that, ultimately, every reader’s interpretation of what is false or unconvincing is going to be different, and some are going to find the use of swear-words jarring, but it isn’t the reader’s opinion that’s important here, it’s the writer’s. Precisely because every reader will see things differently, you simply can’t take their potential opinons into account when you write. You have to write for yourself first. You have to write the kind of book that you love, that you find true, and just hope you’ll be carrying some people along with you. The alternative is just to turn out bland, commercial pulp that you think is going to please the widest market, and that type of sh*t rarely works, even commercially.

As a reader, there’s nothing more irritating to me than faux-shakespearian dialogue, “verily, my liege, we should teach these goblins a harsh lesson.” I swear a lot in my everyday work and home life, it’s part of my everyday mode of expression and that of most people I relate to, so it would seem odd to me if my characters didn’t. It would certainly seem very, very odd if characters who are, to put it nicely, scum, didn’t swear in life-threatening situations. There are some words I don’t use, because they don’t feel right in the setting. I don’t use b*ll*cks. Too English rugby club. I don’t use d*ck (if you’ll allow the expression), but I’ve nothing against c*ck and pr*ck, depending on who’s talking. After all, what are you supposed to call it? Or should you just avoid talking about it at all?

Incidentally, I’m not knocking writers who don’t use piles of swearing. That’s their business, and it’s all part of creating a consistent atmosphere that feels right and honest for them and their readers. Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be improved if Gandalf told the Balrog to f*ck itself, for example. Or maybe it would?

Having said all that, on reading the Blade Itself recently, I did think I’d gone a bit too far with the swearing – not necessarily in the quantity – but in the variety of characters and situations I’d applied it to. I think perhaps when you write two chapters and have a swear-word in each, for example, in the experience of writing, those words might be a week apart. In the experience of reading they might be only five minutes apart. And overuse definitely does reduce impact. As everyone would, I’m sure, agree, it’s a delicate balance. But one that, ultimately, every author has to find their own way with. If you spent your time worrying about what might offend every possible reader, you’d never write a word…

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  1. Very late to the party. I just wanted to say that I mostly agree with Joe on swearing. In his boks it”s completere functionaliteit and does not Detract from the story or the characters, but rather adds to the atmosphere of dark grittiness. I’d like to add though that it IS possible to make setting specific curses and swearwords work, though this happens rarely. I am thinking of Steven Eriksons Malazan book of the fallen. Hè uses worldspecific swearwords that work. A particular favoriet of mine always gas been Hoods Hairy balls! (Hood being the god of death) but I must admit that he is one of the few authors I know who makes that work, and he also does use contemporary swearwords als well

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