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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Manage Profanity


Little blond Barbie dolls. Cute.

Dwayne moved through the house with the silence of a roach. Must be nice to have a playroom and a big room of your own. He bent over the large dollhouse, where a blond plastic bimbo sat askew in her chair having a burger and fries with a redheaded plastic bimbo.

Moonlight cast soft shadows on the toy cabinets and dress-up bin and pink bean bag chairs in the playroom. Typical. Delicious.

Dwayne picked up the blond doll and caressed its molded smile with the tip of his hunting knife. The stiff yellow hair fell across the edge of the blade.


He snatched the locks in his thumb and fingers, slightly less dexterous because of the rubber gloves. He put his left hand over the doll’s face, held the knife to the scalp, and pulled the hair across the blade. The strands came away in his hand reluctantly, like pulling a wing off a bird.

He rotated the defiled doll before his eyes and felt the excitement rise in his neck. Pretty little thing.

Dwayne dropped the doll to the carpet and stepped into Camille’s room. The kindergartner lay sideways on her PowerPuff Girls sheets, blond hair arrayed over the pillow like a yellow skirt.
Pretty little thing.


Lorraine gazed at the martini just down the bar from where she sat. She shut her eyes, almost tasting it. Her own glass rattled when she lifted it to her lips, the ice betraying the tremors in her hand. Water. All it did was chill her. But at least it kept the gravel out of her voice.

“You really used to be a model?” the guy asked.

Lorraine forced herself to look at him. He was bulbous and sweaty, with meaty fingers like a stack of Michelin tires. The thought of him touching her…

“Yeah,” she said, “really. Magazines and catalogues and sh—” She censored herself. Maybe this guy was one of those pervs who didn’t mind adultery but couldn’t stand foul language.

His eyes widened and wandered somewhere south of her eyes. “That’s really something, huh?”

“Yeah. So you sure you don’t need the Percocet anymore?” He’d said it was his wife’s pain-killer but there was no need to remind him that he was betraying her. It might blow the whole thing. Lorraine stamped down a shudder. She needed a smoke.

His eyes came back north. “Huh? Oh, right. No, no, she doesn’t— I mean, it’ll be fine.”

Lorraine stood up and pressed herself against his shoulder. “I don’t know about you, honey, but I’m ready to get somewhere private with you.”

He almost fell getting off the bar stool. “Yeah, sure. Definitely.” He dropped a twenty on the bar and headed to the door, gripping her hand on his arm as if he thought she might run away otherwise.

She was going to run away, all right, but not just yet. She watched his jowls bounce as he walked and again thought of that face on hers.

“Just…let’s go grab the Percocet first, okay?”

“What? I can’t go home with—”

She yanked her hand away and stopped. “You’re going to get it first, you hear me. Or you don’t get,” she said, pulling the hem of her shirt wide open for him to have a look, “what you want.”

His eyes bugged. “Right. Right. Okay. Come on.”

She smoothed her shirt and preceded him to the door. Perv.

Profanity Without All the Bad Language

Were those characters foul? Were they profane? Did you feel their depravity in the seat of your being? If I did my job right, you were horrified by Dwayne and disgusted by Lorraine.

I created that effect because of all the foul language I used, obviously. I mean, have you ever heard so many profanities in the space of a single page?


But surely these are the kind of people who would use profanity. Foulness pervaded their character. Even if you didn’t actually see or hear them using four-letter words, you felt a deep corruption oozing through their skin.

Here’s the point: it is quite possible to create the feeling of profanity without the use of profanity.

In fact, doing so is superior to using profanity in your fiction. It’s the better way, in my opinion.
In his novel Rising Sun Michael Crichton creates a foul-mouthed detective character. He drops the F-bomb as commonly as the words “the” or “and.” He is truly the most disgusting, pathetic character I’ve ever seen on the pages of a novel.

This reaction may not have been what Crichton was aiming for. He probably wanted this character to seem intimidating and street-wise but I just thought he was a sad and empty wretch consumed by self-loathing.

In other words, the free and frequent use of profanity in a book does not necessarily create the hard-edged character you may be trying for. You may find the profanity working against you.

Conversely, the absence of profanity in a book does not mean you cannot create hard-edged or profane characters. As I hope I've demonstrated above.

Show vs. Tell

If you’ve been reading this column very long you know how I feel about show vs. tell. If you’ve read any of my novels you know how I feel about show vs. tell. Anybody can write, “She was angry because of how he’d treated her on the plane.” It takes a lot more skill from the writer to communicate that she was angry and that the cause of her anger was how he’d treated her on the plane—and to do so without saying so outright.

Telling is cheating, in my opinion. It’s lazy storytelling. It reveals a low view of the reader’s intelligence and a lack of trust in the author’s own ability to convey information on paper. It stops the story cold and removes all mystery. It is, in short, A Bad Idea.

Showing, on the other hand, is the land where the masters dwell.

When it comes to communicating that a character is lost or profane, the frequent use of profanity in the manuscript is telling. It’s lazy. Anyone can do it. Yep, that’s a foul-mouthed person.

It takes more creativity and skill—not to mention more words—to communicate that the character is lost or profane but to do so without the use of profanity itself. In other words, it’s showing.

I know you want to be a superior novelist. I know you want to take the path of higher craftsmanship. That means showing and not telling in every aspect of your fiction.
Which is more effective: Crichton’s detective or Dwayne and Lorraine? Which method most perfectly conveys the dissoluteness of the character? Which method more insidiously reveals the person’s degraded inner state? Which method better shows profanity?

Telling conveys head knowledge. Showing conveys heart knowledge. When you show something to your reader she feels it at the center of her being.

That’s what you want to accomplish when you have a character who is foul. You want your reader to feel it in her toes.

The next time you bring a debauched character onstage in your fiction, I challenge you to consider how you can reveal the character’s foulness through scene and action instead of the direct use of profanity.

Take look at the solutions in my last blog article. Maybe use one or more of them. But always, always concentrate your efforts on how you can show your character being profane instead of just letting the epithets flow.

Or Dwayne will get you.

Jeff Gerke


Blogger Ausjenny said...

Wow that was interesting Dwayne gave me the shivers literally.
I appreciated this blog today. I fully understand what you were saying.
Im a reader and i really dont want the bad language but how you created Dwayne made my skin crawl. which is the effect you wanted.
Thanks for the insights

7:53 PM  

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