Recently, there was a discussion on swearing in teenage fiction in the Guardian newspaper. An author was complaining that editors and publishers wouldn’t let him include swearing, and the material felt less real and edgy as a result. When I saw this, I immediately thought of some ways round this problem:
• Go down the Victorian route of writing d—- for damn. Everyone knew what they meant.
• Simply add the swear words in amusing commentary: X swore, using a particularly crude word for one of the least public bodily functions.
• Invent your own swear words. Kids of the 70s and 80s grew up with the heroes of the sci-fi comic 2000AD spouting “Soth!” “Drokk!” and many other fake expletives. Teenagers quickly create their own language, so why don’t authors do the same? It might even make the dialogue more fun.
They added these thoughts to the end of the article, which you can read here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/childrens-books-site/2012/jul/11/james-dawson-why-teens-books-cannot-swear
The 2000AD approach is really original. It’s also funny how they came up with these new words. In his history of the comic, Thrill-Power Overload, David Bishop reveals that the word scrotnig (meaning great) came from a misprint by writer Gerry Finley-Day: “Savage and men scrotnig captives across plain”. The editors took half an hour to figure out that he meant escorting, but the word was so cool that they had to use it in the comic.
What about fantasy fiction proper? The jury is out. China Miéville’s adult fiction is awash with profanities. Every time, it makes the reader jump a little. Tolkein didn’t use any swearing at all, and you don’t really notice its absence. Mervyn Peake didn’t use swear words in Titus Groan and Gormenghast, but then introduced them in the last, darker volume of his trilogy, Titus Alone.
Personally, I would avoid profanities as far as possible, because anything that makes the reader jump back stops them from immersing themselves in the invented world. However, that might just be a personal reaction on my part. Miéville’s fictional city of New Crobuzon is a low-down and dirty place, and the bad language is a key part of creating that experience. However, the route of 2000AD does seem a very creative way of avoiding the problem entirely, though it must be said that it’s harder to invent effective neologisms than it looks.