F is for Four Letter Words in Fiction

My A-Z Challenge this year contains posts about writing adult content in fiction – you will not find any adult fiction within the parameters of the challenge, except for illustration purposes.

I’m a huge believer of truth in fiction. Which doesn’t mean to say I don’t like a completely made-up story but rather that what’s important is the world and the characters within the world of a fictional tale need to stay true to themselves.

For example, a story I’m currently writing takes place within the confines of a city bus, in a real city in the real world in which we all live. Any and every conceivable character could ride on that bus; all shapes, ages, levels of intelligence, all with various degrees of respect. In order to stay true to my setting, I feel I must include characters whom I find distasteful – characters who swear, tell fart jokes, and are generally abrasive and disrespectful.

The same often occurs within the setting of a novel. Especially in dialogue, this can be a challenge when, for example, it becomes necessary to include a character who habitually uses a certain word. Like “fuck.” Everyone has come across someone whose speech regularly includes, “fuck this, fuckin’ fuck that, fuckin’ whatever fuck” throughout every conversation they have. I actually have someone living in my basement like this, so I’m intimately familiar with this behaviour. (No, I can’t just get rid of him. I gave birth to him.)  When writing such a character into a novel which you hope will come out as a literary masterpiece, how do you balance such a character’s dialogue? It’s a toughie. Same as with what I call “ummers”–people who say “um” after every third word. There ARE people who do this, it’s true. But try reading it – it’s annoying!

Have you ever come across characters in stories where this sort of dialogue was handled well… or not?

 

 

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20 thoughts on “F is for Four Letter Words in Fiction

  1. I don’t care how good the story idea is or how well the rest of it is told, if the dialog feels unnatural I can’t read it. I’d rather read plays than most fiction because plays are all about the character as expressed through dialog. You can’t cheat through internal monologue or action.

    The problem with swearing or umm is that writers tend to over do it. If most of your cast never swears, the occasional “fuck” from that one guy will quickly identify him without the need to use it every other word in his dialog. Umm can be used effectively in the same manner, say a character mentions how much they hate speech interrupted by umm or like. You can then show the umm character using it only in places where it shows who is speaking without having to over do it. If done right, the reader will just naturally hear the umm even when it’s not written, they’ll know that character that well.

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  2. I agree with ranting monkey. It’s ok to make the point, but it doesn’t have to be overdone to get the message across. Less is more in general. I’m learning that from flash fiction, but I’m having difficulties applying it to my own writing 😦

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  3. I second Ranting Monkey’s statement! However, if the character is annoying, and the dialogue fits their personality and mirrors that which they would say if they were “real”, go with it. Yes, writers may tend to over do the use of these verbal mannerisms, but if the purpose is to express that aspect of a character’s personality (and hopefully it is just ONE character that annoys us and not multiple) then it is effective.

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    • Yeah, there’s a balance there that has to be located. Otherwise, if there’s a character who absolutely HAS to overdo it, it’s probably best to keep him out of most of the scenes, eh? 😛 Thanks for your comment, Christina. 🙂

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  4. My father-in-law is supreme commander in the use of the f word. I’ve never had a conversation with him where he didn’t use it less than 5 times. So, in fictional dialogue, I think there can be a character who uses it frequently. However, I don’t think there can be more than one because it becomes an identifier. We identify the f word with that character. I was tempted to use the f word in my post today about parents! 😀

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    • Ha! I’ve got to read that post! 😀 That’s precisely why I created this blog – to free myself of the constraints of “family viewing” that pretty much dominates my regular blog.
      But back to characters. I agree that language patterns of any kind are a great way to identify a character in writing. Because you can’t have visual ones… like Fred’s ascot in Scooby Doo. 🙂

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  5. I’m always amazed when we visit my in-laws, because the entire range of our dialogue changes. My husband becomes capable of holding in his F bombs, I use verbs appropriately…when they come here, not so much. I think you absolutely come to know a character via dialogue. The rest may well be pretense. 😉

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    • Yep. In fact I’d be willing to bet simply by the way I write my comments that you’d get the feeling you recognized me from somewhere if you didn’t know who I really am. 😉
      Our character’s voices like our own have to be unique to be believable. 🙂

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  6. I definitely can’t stand to read too much peppery dialogue, and I don’t just mean the swear words, I mean annoying speech patterns. They may be true to life but it’s a book that’ll go unread.

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    • When was the last time you tried to read Wuthering Heights? Hehe.
      There’s a popular writer out there – I’m pretty sure it’s Patricia Cornwell – whose characters never use contractions in their speech. Throughout the one entire book I read there wasn’t a single “it’s” or “don’t.” Drove me nuts and I never read another of her books.
      So you’re a fan of not overdoing it, I take it. 😉

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  7. Firstly Miss Izzy, this is an excellent post. For me belief in writing ensures the acceptance of language, if you don’t believe the writing the language for me come across as forced and so lacks belief.
    When I was teaching I wrote a play my students performed about the issue of anorexia. In one scene the dr is explaining to the character the importance of her attitude in dealing with her eating disorder. In the original script the character was very earthy and replied to the dr ‘Fuck Attitude’. In the context it was very appropriate but being a school production it had to be changed to ‘Stuff attitude’ which worked ok but never quite captured the same meaning as the original. It was one of the few times my students and I agreed on the use of the word…..but we were subject to rules greater than any of us…..

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  8. A fascinating piece. I agree, any story, no matter how fantastic needs to be realistic within itself. Every story is like a bus journey. And everybody on that bus has to be there no matter how annoying they are. Ally 🙂

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