This is one of the many questions most fiction writers must ask in most projects. I’m told that the coziest of cozy mysteries eschew all profanity, but it sometimes happens that the villain is a roughneck. What then?
Personally, as a reader, I can take it or leave it. I generally don’t notice it when it’s missing. On the other hand, I can tolerate a moderate amount of bad language — more when I’m reading to myself than when I’m reading aloud to Mom. When I’m reading aloud to Mom, I generally redact most if not all of the F-bombs and pretty much all of the references to anatomical naughty bits.
I once began reading a paranormal mystery by a writer I had recently met and had found to be a very nice person. The profanity was so thick, I stopped reading after a couple of pages. It felt like a verbal assault. I was willing to concede that these characters, in this situation, would talk exactly like that; I just found the volume to be too loud for comfort.
Part of the problem was the repetitiveness. There was just enough variety to show me that the writer could mix it up, but not enough to make it really interesting. I have a friend from Chicago who used to be an artist with bad language. Every sentence popped and sizzled; he seemed to have an innate sense of the rhythm of his words. It was like listening to good bluegrass: edgy, but delicious.
Knowing these things as a reader, what do I do as a writer?
I generally make the decision to limit the bad language I use. My husband separates profanity into two kinds: irreverence and vulgarity. Irreverence is using words that would be fine if a preacher used them in a sermon. Vulgarity is using words referring to sexuality, body parts, bodily functions, or lower eliminations. I say “lower” because, insofar as I know, nobody considers “snot,” “spit,” or “earwax” profane.
It seems to me that limiting the bad language you use in your writing — if you’re writing about people who use profanity — makes the profanity you do choose to use more powerful. If the usage is so common as to be unremarkable … part of what writing is about is eliminating the unremarkable from your writing, yes? So I would go with just using enough to give a flavoring without crossing the line into a waste of ink.
What do you think about using profanity in writing, as a reader and as a writer?
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Write a scene liberally laced with profanity. Write it again without the profanity. Was the profanity a crutch to prop up weak writing? Don’t get sore; I’m just asking.