Curse You Perry The Platypus!

As a Christian writer, I've been faced with a controversial topic in Christian circles ... dun, dun, dun .... swearing. I read a post by Abigail Hartman who summed it up better than I did, but I still wanted to write something about it and share why I chose to use a few instances of profanity in my WWII novel, Resist. 

Using swear words in fiction should be like using salt or pepper in a recipe. A little goes a long way. If you use too much, you've ruined the recipe. If you use too little it doesn't have the strong flavor you were going for. And in many cases you don't need any at all. I close books that are bogged down in profanity. But if the (mild) swear words are used like salt or pepper and really show an emotion, I don't mind it. Most books don't need swear words. And yet, I feel like some do.

I think a well placed and sparely used swear can be used in fiction. I don't think it's "uncreative" on the author's part because if you're writing a true to life historical fiction (especially involving a war) someone along the line is gonna swear, gosh darn it. 

In Resist, there are Nazi soldiers beating Russians prisoners and sending Jews to their deaths. There's death and destruction on the Eastern Front and conspiratorial acts against the Nazis that could lead to execution. As I was writing Resist, the first swear word I've practically ever written sprang from my keyboard. I was a little surprised at myself. Did I really just write, "'What the hell?' Oh no. I'm a horrible human being!" *closes laptap and sets it on fire*


I struggled with this for a little while. "Am I doing the right thing? Is everyone going to be utterly appalled at me?" As I'm writing, sometimes I honestly feel that a certain swear word fits an intense bit of dialogue and sums up an emotion effectively. Then I come upon another point. I can easily see soldiers swearing, but my main character is an honorable, God-fearing, good person. He's a very moral human being.

Yes. A human being.

He makes mistakes. He says the wrong things. He's not perfect. Because of the utter misery of war and the horror his country in inflicting on others, he's so bottled up with emotions that it comes out in a curse.We shouldn't embrace swearing nor use big amounts of it in our books. But neither should we shy away from it if would make the dialogue stronger and more realistic. Just as all the horrors of war were real, so was swearing. And swearing because of the horrors of war is pretty understandable and real.I wanted to bring Hans to life with all his good qualities as well as his mistakes and human nature. If I think he would say "the damned Treaty of Versailles"  I'm going to write it down the way he would say it to keep the book authentic. 

I like the way Abigail Hartman puts it:


"God is not going to condemn us because we know a word, nor even, I do not believe, because we (or our characters) use a word. Attitude is far more important, and when it comes to it, slamming a door can be far more sinful than saying "damn." We can - should! - incorporate into our stories things of which we do not approve; we should not pretend that the world and its language do not exist ... So it seems to me that when you think a character would say this or do that, he should probably say this and do that. Hastily diverting the stream of his or her personality will only create awkwardness. The story works better when you allow them to be true to their characters. Seriously. It does ... Maybe we as the authors don't condone it, but we don't have to sermonize about it (that's even worse than not using the word in the first place). We ought to write with understanding and compassion for the nature of man in all his God-made glory - fallen glory, yes, but glory all the same. That includes the imperfections and the red-blooded passion of the real world. It includes those cutting words, that total love, the acts they regret when all's said and done. If we don't write like this, who will?"

I know that I'm going to offend some people, but I want to reach beyond Christian Fiction readers to inspire and move people who don't know God. I want to write honest fiction that reaches them where they are and inspires young people to rise up and do good amidst their struggles and sins. Like Brandon Clemons says:

"If I started making concessions for the Christian who is offended, then I think the book would have begun to lose a lot of its power and authenticity to the most important intended audience. Because if you try to write for everyone, you end up writing for no one."


-Emily

25 comments

  1. I LOVE THIS. I personally find it hard to make characters swear (and feel more comfortable with writing something like, 'He/she swore') but I agree that it can make a book SO much more realistic. I'm trying to find a medium for myself when it comes to writing frustrations and characters realistically.

    What I don't like is (good) characters swearing for NO reason. Like it's normal and fine. But when a character has MILLIONS of problems or is a villain-type person, then I agree it can be used to a certain extent. (I also get especially uncomfortable if a good Christian character uses the name of God in a very casual context. I just don't like that, personally.)

    This has lately been on my mind for a long while, actually, and I'm still kind of deciding and figuring out what I personally feel most comfortable with.

    Thank you for writing this!

    ~ Naomi

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    1. Thanks for reading, Naomi! It took me a while to figure out exactly where I stand on this issue. I think it comes down to a matter of personal conscience.

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  2. OH MY GOODNESS. (Naomi referred me here because this is something we've talked about some and she knows I have opinions on the subject.) THANK YOU for writing this! I could not agree more!

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  3. Well said.

    Context really is the deciding factor for me. In real life I've heard plenty of people give casual, unsavory adjectives and exclamations to such petty things as say, dropping a pizza slice upside down, or even in admiration of something. That type of thing I don't agree with in life or books, but like you said, for Hans, the situation is radically different, in a truly life or death kind of way. This also reminds me of the controversy in the King's Speech, in which personally, I think context again makes the difference.

    Thank you for writing such a clear explanation!

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    1. Thank you for reading, Mary! Yes, context does makes the difference. I don't agree with casual swearing either. I think if an author uses profanity it should to be done with careful consideration for that particular story.

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  4. I couldn't agree more with this post, Emily, so thank you for writing it. I feel like a lot of Christian authors and readers shy away from this topic because the standard stands differently for everyone.

    If a writer constantly and consistently uses profane language in a casual or laid-back way (as in, the character dropped his open can of soda and a foul word is used) *that* is when I begin to feel frustrated with the book and more specifically, its author. To me, in that context, it's just not necessary, and if it comes to the point where every other page has a swear word, I will put the book down. What a person reads and hears and sees becomes who they are and I try to be very cautious of what I'm allowing myself to be exposed to.

    That said, I've also read many Christian fiction books where the characters just seem a little too perfect or glossed over. In the midst of something as traumatizing as war or suffering beyond my comprehension, for someone to express themselves with "Jeepers!" just doesn't feel authentic.

    So a whole-hearted YES to everything you said: salt and pepper. A little goes a long way, and a lot makes me want to gag. :) I'm going to use this post for reference because is sums up my personal thoughts as a *reader.* I like your wording a lot. Thanks, Emily!

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    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts, Emily!

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  5. I agree with you on this. For instance when I watch movies/read books and people are just cursing to curse I hate that. When it's during a war scene or some hardship I actually think it's right to have that there. It adds to the emotional aspect of 'Wow they are going through some tough stuff'

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    1. Exactly. I think profanity (if used sparingly) can makes war books/movies much more authentic. Thanks for reading, Hannah!

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  6. Okay ... in a way I sorta agree with you, but in another way I don't. ;P I'll try to explain.
    I personally shy away from books with any swearing, however, if it is used sparingly, I can sorta overlook it and enjoy the book.
    I also think just saying "he/she swore" is sufficient most of the time, because I don't really want/need the words in my head.
    For me, it also depends a lot on the age-rage the book is intended for. In my opinion, middle-grade/YA readers should be never have swear words, for obvious reasons.
    I do understand, especially in books dealing with war or something similar, when the author decides to use a swear words. When it gets down to it, the fact about whether or not the person swearing is a christian or not plays a huge role in how I will view the use of profanity.
    So I guess to sum up what I have been trying to say ... ;) I will never use profanity in any of my writing (apart from he/she swore, which I have used) but I can understand and, to a certain extent, even agree with you on the issue of using it in historical fiction.
    And than you for writing the post! I wish more christian authors would be more willing to talk about and confront issues such as this. :)

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    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your views, Jesseca. This is a topic I've been meaning to blog about for a while! You're right ... it does depend on the age of the reader. Young readers shouldn't be exposed to profanity in literature. RESIST, however, isn't intended for young readers because of the heavy content.

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  7. YES!!! SO MUCH YES! While I do try to make sure that my characters don't swear unnecessarily, I find it awkward to have a character in a terrible situation and have them say "Oh, gosh darn it..." One thing I've always found rather annoying is when writers won't use profanity, but there are clearly dark themes such as killing that they go into in depth. It's like, "It's okay to describe bashing someone's head against a brick wall repeatedly, but you can't use the 'D/F word'" Anyways... rant over, what I meant to say is, thank you for writing this post. I think every Christian writer should read it.

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    1. Yeah, I don't get why it's acceptable for writers to describe violence, but "don't you dare use a swear word!" It's weird. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Elizabeth!

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  8. Emily, this is great. I haven't really thought about this topic much before, but I definitely think it's an important thing for a Christian author to think about. I agree with your points!

    Also - I've missed you!!! I have been completely absent for way too long. I'm back :) how have you been?

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    1. HANNAH! I've missed you! The blogosphere has been cold and grey without you. =) Glad you're back!

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  9. Very thoughtful post and helpful for Christian writers who are not writing Christian fiction. I believe you did an incredible job with Resist. It is a hard, gory, and profane topic you covered... but you managed to make it family friendly while still being authentic. If you write historic fiction about WWII without any swear words, you are really close to offering a rose-coloured glasses form of nostalgic pseudo-history. Sometimes swearing is unavoidable, particularly in Historical Fiction. I know many people disagree with this view, but I am encouraged by your bravery and ability to express your thoughts so thoughtfully.

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  10. Great post, Emily!! I agree with you pretty much 100%--this is the same conclusion I've come to with my own historical fiction writing. At first, I didn't want to include ANY swear words at all (just because of personal convictions), but I quickly realized that if I wanted to make my Army Air Force pilots seem like actual real people, I would have to record at least a FEW of the curses which they'd inevitably let fall in stressful situations. Like you said, it's all about writing realistic, flawed human beings.

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  11. This was interesting although I'm not sure whether I agree with it or not. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

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  12. And I just want to say I love the title of this post ;)

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    1. Hahaha! From watching Phineas and Ferb at your house! =)

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