Foul Language in Fiction – Necessary?

Recently I was part of a rather intense debate on the subject of whether foul/bad language is necessary at all in fiction. Various arguments were made for an against, but all from the viewpoint of critics looking in on films and literature, rather than as actual writers themselves.

As a Creative Writing student, and a fiction writer, I think I can offer a slightly different approach.

It all depends on what it is that you are writing – that much is obvious I’m sure. In my own experience, when working on a collaborative play for the course, we wrote the whole thing based on conflicting wedding speeches. Eventually one of the speakers snaps and reveals a horrid truth about the bride to be – and when he reveals this truth it is the only use of swearing in the entire play. This, to my mind, was quite effective as it comes as a shock and also it meant that both the meaning of the word and the fact it is ‘dirty’ or ‘profane’ fitted with the revolting nature of the revelation as well as the emotion explosivity of the character. But that technique is an old, old trick – nothing new – its just important to remember that content is actually indivisible, ultimately, from style, (or at least should be) and therefore profane language should only be used if the content itself deserves a style reflective of profanity – an entire work made up of this can be exceedingly tedious, but moments of it, or perhaps a single character like it, can prove effective.
Additionally, sometimes swearing is humorous – let’s face it.

Another important argument I saw in the debate online, was that films, media, and writing for “years” have not truly represented how people speak. Though a good point, whoever made it, is sadly mistaken. Films and writing have NEVER truly represented how people speak, because it wouldn’t work. If an attempt has been made it no doubt is an obscure film, and not a blockbuster, because a true representation of language would be almost impossible to follow. Our conversations are almost as erring and eccentric as our thought patterns, if you reflect upon them. People always ask the question: “How did we get onto this topic of conversation?” and the series of links and networks that lead up to the point are almost untraceably convoluted.

But – and it’s an important but – films, novels, plays, and other medias can represent the essence of how people speak and communicate, and that is more important. Some people will use foul language, and so it should be represented – maybe not every other word (which is genuinely how some people speak) but in a way that reflects this density of profanity. Similarly when representing an eloquent or rhetorical speaker, their vocabulary in a novel might well be even greater in breadth than it could ever be in reality, simply to convey the sense more potently. By the way, I have used the two examples of a profane speaker and a rhetorical one – but in the words of Stephen Fry in an interview on writing: “The person that says that people who swear have a limited vocabulary, is talking f***ing bull****”
I hope you enjoyed this blog – tune in to more by following me on Twitter at: josephwordsmith – adios and good-day amigos.



One thought on “Foul Language in Fiction – Necessary?

  1. Yes, good points in this, and to expand one: we don’t, I think, really want language that is exactly like how we speak for that would be tedious – for all the detours and ums-and-ahs you mention. Language invariably needs to be heightened in literature, but it’s a sort of genius when somebody does this and we become unaware of it – in fact consider it realistic!

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