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Monday, April 21, 2008

Manage Profanity, Part 1

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a care"

Doesn't quite work, does it? Give a rip? A flip? Frankly, my dear, I don't care one way or the other? Nah.

And yet in Christian fiction, profanity is verboten. The prim church ladies who enjoy inspirational fiction want to do so without having to expose themselves to foul language. So how do we portray characters who use profanity if we're not allowed to use it in our books?

Ah, one of the great dilemmas of writing Christian fiction.

Let me hasten to say that I actually agree with the prim church ladies. Having to read profanity in something I'm voluntarily reading, and for fun at that, kind of spoils the experience for me. Many people come to Christian fiction to have good stories but to be untouched by the vilest elements of the culture.

In my years in Christian publishing I have had a number of disagreements with fellow publishing professionals on this topic. Some feel—quite vehemently—that avoiding profanity is inherently dishonest. Inauthentic. The way to reach the lost, they argue, is to show lost people doing lost things and talking the way lost people do.

I acknowledge that this is a valid argument. However, I continue to disagree that CBA fiction ought to be laced with profanity. The audience CBA publishers reach, after all, is not the lost, no matter how we wish it were so. The audience we do reach doesn't want to read "that trash."

Other folks want to include a watered-down version of profanity. They want the PG-rated vocabulary, which usually has a 1-to-1 correlation with actual profanity.

Still other folks want to eliminate swearing in Christian fiction entirely. I'm of that school of thought.

However, that doesn't help us with our dilemma. How do you create profane characters without resorting to profanity? Or should you, um, dern the torpedoes and use the profanity the character would use?

In preparation for this Tip I surveyed some of my published Christian novelist friends to hear how they deal with this issue. Their solutions fell into six major categories.

Proposed Solution 1: Use All the Profanity You Want

You can always just let your foul characters talk the way they would really talk. Though it pain you (or not) to do so, you can simply let it all hang out there and hope your publisher will be "open-minded" enough to let it stay in the finished ms.

One problem with this is that your typical CBA publisher will never let you get away with this. And it's not because they're prudes.

See, all it takes is one complaint from a little old lady from Pasadena to the Christian bookstore where she bought the book, and your book is pulled from the shelves and sent back to the publisher in bulk. Along with a nasty letter about how the bookstore owner will never trust that publishing company again. That's bad.

A variation on this is to write your rough draft with all the profanity you think should be in there, and then come back through later and use one of the following solutions to trim it out.

Proposed Solution 2: Use Watered Down Profanity

In this solution you come as close to the real four-letter words as you can, often with alternate four-letter words that aren't perceived as being as bad as the originals. In other words, you let your characters be as foul-mouthed as you can possibly get away with, while always pushing the envelope.

I'm a big believer in Ephesians 4:29, which says we should allow no unwholesome word to proceed from our mouths, but only those words that work to build up or educate the hearer. However, I think that latter phrase will allow me to tell you what I mean here.

In this solution, you use words like crap and dang and heck and geez, all of which offend me personally but are in the daily vocabulary of many people who love the Lord with all their hearts, so I won't judge.

To me, this solution makes your characters seem like B-level foul-mouths. Like they'd like to really cuss but their moms won't let them. It's hard to make someone seem really foul when they always hold back from actual profanity.

In that sense, I think this solution actually works against what you're trying to do, which is create someone truly profane. They all seem like wimps.

Oh...pickle juice!

Proposed Solution 3: Write for Secular Publishers (or Self-Publish)

If you're so committed to authenticity in your art that you can't bear to write something besides what your foul characters would really say, then consider writing for a publisher that doesn't care about bad language.

Namely, a secular publisher. Sometimes you're not writing what these publishers want unless you've got profanity throughout your story. You could make the argument that writing for a secular publisher is how you can reach the lost with your fiction anyway, so maybe that's the path for you.

Self-publishing is another potential outlet for your profanity-laced fiction. Some Christian subsidy publishing houses (like WinePress or Creation House Press) would probably want to tone down the profanity in your book, but secular self-publishing companies don't care one way or another. So long as you don't say anything in your book that might get them in legal trouble, they're probably okay with whatever comes out of your characters' mouths.

Proposed Solution 4: Avoid Writing Profane Characters

When I asked this question of one of my friends and fellow Christian novelists, she had a sort of epiphany. She realized that because of this prohibition against profanity in Christian novels she'd simply avoided writing truly foul characters in her fiction.

Such characters had been on the fringe of her stories but she'd never written one into the middle of her story—which would've obligated her to face this dilemma.

You can do this, too. Probably the most elegant solution to how you can not have to decide whether or not to let your profane characters use profanity is to simply not write any profane characters. Problem solved.

You could make the case that avoiding a major kind of person in your stories puts a certain limit on your fiction and your storytelling, but that might not be a bad thing. We all limit our story choices anyway, choosing for instance not to write romance or horror or YA, so maybe this is the right solution for you.

Proposed Solution 5: Use Euphemisms

This is probably the most commonly employed solution to our dilemma. In this, you let characters be as foul-mouthed as you want them to be—you simply don't spell it out.

When Jerry learned of Mary's affair, he let us all know exactly how he felt about her character, her physical attributes, and choice aspects of her ancestry.

Louise's anger grew throughout the day. Finally, after kicking her toe on a table leg, she let loose with a string of profanity that left the ochre paint decidedly paler.

This kind of thing is the literary equivalent to how old movies used to handle sex scenes. The door shut and we faded to black. We knew what was going on, but it wasn't demonstrated for us onstage.

Incidentally, this is also the way old novels handled profanity. Here's an example from A Touch of Death, a 1953 novel by Charles Williams:

She didn't like me. And you could see the chords in her throat while she was telling me about it. "Shut up," I said.

In Internet parlance, we speak of meta-data. This is data about data. Metaknowledge is knowledge about knowledge. It's a way of describing something by taking one step back from the thing to tell us what it is and what attributes it has.

This solution to profanity is metaprofanity. It's information about the profanity. We don't see the swearing itself, but we see a description of the swearing.

You have to be more creative (and use more humor) to write this way. Anybody can write in a cuss word, but it takes real talent to give us the feeling of the cussing without literally spelling it out.

This is probably the solution you should use most of the time.

Proposed Solution 6: Invent a Language

You can't do this in most books, obviously. But when you write speculative fiction you have the opportunity to create a whole new language. That way, characters can be swearing a blue streak but because it's a made-up language, no one can possibly be offended.

The cancelled science fiction TV series Firefly does this. Sort of. The solution there is to use bits of Mandarin Chinese when the characters go off into cussing. Because in the far future the last great superpowers, the U.S. and China, merged, giving a certain merging of their languages.

It's quite convenient to have a swearing language at your disposal. You might be able to do this, too.

Firefly also uses made-up words not from Chinese. Characters say "gorram," which is obviously a euphamism for something else, but it's not actually cussing and therefore no one has grounds to be upset. Battlestar Galactica uses "frak," which again they get away with because it's technically not a word, though it's clear from usage what it means.

I'm inventing a language for my own epic fantasy. It's mostly English but I use synonyms for all kinds of things: a gnat is a neener, a squirrel is a scratch, and "okay" is "ulda."

I'm also allowing the characters to cuss like construction workers—but only in this nonsense language.

Snoog. Rhyne. Stelnate.

Are you offended? Exactly.

Two more things on this solution. First, there is a theory that a culture's swearing vocabulary arises in areas where that culture feels repressed. For instance, French Canadians use parts of a cathedral as their curse words: Oh, tabernacle! Holy sancrist! Apparently they felt oppressed by the church.

If you're making up a culture, why not use this theory to also make up a curse vocabulary that involves whatever they're feeling repressed by (or did feel repressed by back in the day when such things were being invented)?

In my story, my characters feel overly oppressed by high taxation. "Well, I'll be taxed" is a common epithet in their tongue.

Such a solution allows you to be as crass as you want using words or terms that are, in and of themselves, inoffensive.

Second, there is a wonderful Web site that creates new words from old ones. All you have to do is enter a fairly large pool of words—any words—and click a button. And boom, out comes a new set of scrambled words that sound vaguely like the original ones but are completely new.

Why not use this for your cursing vocabulary? I do.

In my fantasy I wanted to use words that sounded like church words but weren't. Here are some of the new words coined by this Web site: restate, sacle, baptudy, substion, and tesure. Cool, huh? Try it out.

Next Time

Okay, those are the main solutions for showing profane characters in Christian fiction. Hopefully, one is for you.

Next time I'll tell you what I think is the real issue and the challenge for you.

Jeff Gerke (a.k.a. Jefferson Scott www.jeffersonscott.com and www.wherethemapends.com )


Blogger Susan Page Davis said...

Great post, Jeff. You nailed the problem and suggested several workable solutions. Thanks!

2:18 PM  
Blogger Mary Connealy said...

I am reminded of Fred Flinstone, storming around saying, "Rassa frassa, frass...whatever."

That was certainly allowed for FRED.

My problem with writing cursing is...I don't use the words myself. So how am I supposed to type them into a book?
And why would I?

But I have typed, Mort turned the air blue cussing.

Or Booley's reaction was short and profane. I don't even do that much. There are plenty of ways to show rage, contempt, and general foulness without typing the exact words.

Great article Jeff.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Darlene Franklin said...

While Mom and I were playing cards tonight, she kept saying "rats and snakes" when they didn't go her way. I immediately thought of this post.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Ausjenny said...

Great post. Im a reader and I admit I dont want to read profanity in Christian books. Oh Crap is one word that was considered quite offensive in Australia but is becoming used more widely. (american influence.) I think some of the words the British use that are slang but not offensive are great words.
But then its interesting to words ok in australia can be bad in American and some words Americans use in everyday conversations can be quite offensive here.

3:56 AM  
Blogger Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Good post, Jeff.

I've always been partial to Yosemite Sam's tirades.

10:21 PM  

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