Three %@(£#*$ Stupid Ways To Use Profanity In Fiction, Comics etc..

First of all, there is nothing wrong with using profanity in fiction, comics etc…. However, there are right and wrong ways to use these important parts of the English language in the things you create.

So, for today, I thought that I’d look at some of the wrong ways to use profanity in creative works – since they can be quite illustrative. And, yes, some of them are either an indirect or direct result of censorship of some kind, but they can still be very illustrative of what NOT to do.

1) The “American Dad DVD” approach: One of the many amusing things about watching an animated sitcom called “American Dad” on DVD is that the UK DVD packaging will often use descriptions like “outrageous“, “too rude for TV” etc… Which sounds thrillingly rebellious, until you realise that the show’s creators are rebelling against much stricter American TV censorship rules.

As such, the DVD versions of these episodes often include short additional/alternative scenes that use more realistic profanity. However, due to the fact that the show is also primarily intended to be aired on American TV, these scenes and lines of dialogue are included in such a way that they can also easily be altered or removed without affecting the main story of the episode.

This has the unintended side effect of making these additional scenes seem “gratuitous” in the literal sense of the word. Even though an episode might only use one or two four-letter words, they often seem like they’ve been shoehorned into the episode just for the sake of it. Plus, it leads to absurd situations where the dialogue will often be polite enough for the US television censors during fairly important/dramatic scenes but, in some much less significant moment, a character will use much more emphatic language. It just sounds very, very weird.

This is a good example of how important context is when using profanity in creative works. Whenever you use profanity in fiction, it has to emerge naturally from the scene in question. It has to be something that the audience would realistically expect to hear in that particular situation. If it isn’t, then it will just sound gratuitous rather than dramatic.

2) The “Euphemisms When Not Needed” approach: Another silly example of American TV censorship leading to badly-written profanity can be found in more serious American drama shows. Often, these shows will often try to create the impression of their characters using more realistic language through the use of various euphemisms. However, thanks to the censorship, these euphemisms often appear in situations where people realistically wouldn’t use euphemisms.

After all, if you’re talking informally with your friends in private, you probably aren’t going to avoid using four-letter words at all costs. You’re just going to talk normally. However, if you’re in a more formal situation or talking to someone you don’t know well, then you’re probably going to use euphemisms a lot more because of social conventions about politeness. Euphemisms exist to allow people to say things that can’t be directly said in particular situations. Outside of those situations, there is little use for them.

So, don’t use euphemisms in situations where your characters wouldn’t!

If you’re in a situation where you can’t use realistic profanity in your stories but have to write a scene where euphemisms would sound out-of-place, then either use the strongest language that you can get away with using or just don’t use it at all. After all, a badly-placed euphemism sounds more out-of-place than a suspiciously polite conversation.

3) The “Boring Repetition” approach: On the other end of the spectrum, there are right and wrong ways to write dialogue that includes a lot of profanity.

Ironically, you should actually try to avoid realism if you’re using a lot of profanity in your dialogue. After all, when almost every other word is the same four-letter word, it just sounds more like repetitive punctuation than anything else.

So, if you’re using a lot of profanity in fiction then be creative with it! Vary the words that you use slightly and/or pair them with things like wit, amusing descriptions and/or interesting events.

Likewise, remember that less is still more. If you pair a few carefully-placed four letter words with lots of opinionated, controversial, descriptive and/or amusing dialogue, then your work will, ironically, sound a lot more profanity-filled than it would if you actually included ridiculous amounts of profanity. It is as much about attitude as it is about frequency.

A very good example of this approach to profanity can be found in Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics, or possibly some recordings of George Carlin‘s stand-up routines.

When done well, profanity-heavy dialogue crackles with a frisson of passion and energy, it makes you laugh and cringe, it makes you want to quote lines from the dialogue and it makes the character who is speaking seem like some kind of cynical badass. However, when it is done badly, it just seems dull, repetitive and/or immature.

So, if you’re using a lot of profanity in your dialogue, then treat it like paints on a palette, rather than punctuation marks.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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