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 🙂

How To Use Profanity Effectively In Comics

2016 Artwork The effective use of profanity in comics

Although I briefly mentioned this subject a couple of days ago, I thought that I’d take a more in-depth look at the right and wrong ways to use four-letter words in comics. Before I go any further, I should probably point out that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using profanity in comics (or any other media) – provided that it’s done well.

This article will also only really cover the effective use of the most dramatic four-letter words, and I won’t really be covering the less dramatic ones here. And, just for the sake of irony, I’ll try to write this entire article without using said words. But, first, I’ll explain why I’m writing about this topic today.

When I was planning one of the comics in the webcomic mini series that started yesterday evening, I had a rather interesting experience. Although the first three panels of the comic each contained a smaller joke, the truly funny part was the final panel – where one of the characters expressed shocked disdain in a dramatic way. If this wasn’t done dramatically enough, then the comic would be significantly less amusing. It was the thing that brought the jokes in the first three panels together in a truly hilarious way.

So, without even really thinking much, I spontaneously added a realistic expression to the end of the comic. It was a perfect fit with both the moment and the character. Then I started to worry if it would fall foul of the content rules of the sites I post my comics to.

I considered substituting it for a less dramatic phrase, but any lesser phrase would drain the humour from the funniest moment in the comic. In the end, I compromised and kept something similar to the original phrasing – albeit with the addition of two asterisks.

A good general rule for when to (and when not to) use profanity in your comic is to see whether it emerges naturally from your characters or not.

If anything, you should actually be slightly reluctant to use it in your comic – this usually means that it’ll only emerge when nothing else will do. If you take this approach, then every time that your characters use one of these words will be a dramatic/ funny/ surprising etc.. moment.

It’s kind of like a more sensible version of the silly film censorship rule that films with a “12A” or “PG-13” certificate can only use a certain four-letter word a limited number of times (1-2 times in the US, 4-5 times in the UK), despite the fact that, when I was a young teenager, this word always seemed more “cool” or “rebellious” than “shocking” or “offensive”. Then again, this might explain the rule…

Although these silly censorship rules sometimes result in the word being used for immature shock value, or thrown into a film unnecessarily in order to get a higher certificate – they do at least provide a slightly exaggerated example of how to use profanity effectively in comics.

Since the makers of these films can only use the word a limited number of times, they have to use it when absolutely nothing else will do. Although you might end up using it more than 1-5 times in your comic, setting yourself some kind of informal limit can be a good way to make sure that you use this word in it’s most effective way.

Even though a few comic writers can make frequent use of these words funny and/or dramatic through extremely clever writing (Warren Ellis is a master of this skill in his “Transmetropolitan” comics), most of the time, these words lose a lot of their dramatic or comedic impact if they’re used too often.

Not only that, if they’re used regularly in contexts where they probably wouldn’t appear in real life, your comic will come across as immature, rather than “edgy”, “gritty” or “witty”.

So, the rule about being reluctant to use them is more about pacing, timing and drama than anything to do with prim puritanism. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule – such as when realistically depicting informal conversations. But, even then, it’s usually better to be slightly careful about how often you use these words, lest you bore the audience with constant repetition.

So, aim not to use them – but be open to the times when they appear naturally and spontaneously. Or set yourself some kind of vague informal limit, in order to avoid lessening their dramatic value through excessive repetition.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How Often Should You Use Profanity In Your Story Or Comic?

Foiled again!

Foiled again!

If you’ve been writing for a while, then you probably already know the answer to this question. But, if you haven’t, then this can be a tricky area for new writers. And, don’t worry, we’ve probably all made the beginners’ mistake of using too much or too little profanity in our stories.

(And, just for the fun of it, I’m going to see if I can write this article without using any of the more interesting words in the English language. Although I’m nowhere near as prudish as this in real life, I practically seem to be a Victorian when it comes to writing these articles.)

The fact is that profanity is an essential and integral part of realistic speech. And the goal of writing good dialogue and/or narration is to make it sound as realistic and believable as possible.

This has been true throughout history. Even in the more “prim and proper” old days, writers and artists still included a wide variety of profane and crude terms in their works. The only reason it might not appear to be this way is because most of these expressions are either no longer considered profane or they are considered laughably quaint (and, of course, even the word “quaint” was sometimes used as a double-entendre in plays and literature a few centuries ago).

In other words, every time a character in a Shakespeare play says something like “Zounds!” or ” ‘swounds!”, they are basically using the sixteenth century equivalent of some of our more “modern” four-letter Anglo-Saxon words. Which, ironically, were considered nowhere near as crude back then as they are now. It’s funny how things change.

In short, swearing in literature and comics isn’t a bad thing. Unless you’re writing for very young children, for a school project (at anything below about 6th form level – although you can probably get away with milder swear words at GCSE level) or for a very religious audience, it’s perfectly ok to use swear words in your story or comic.

The real problem is knowing when to use them and when not to use them. If you include too many four-letter words in your stories, then not only can it dilute the dramatic impact of these words, it can also make you sound like you’re a teenager who is trying to sound “rebellious”.

Conversely, if you include too few swear words in your story (especially in situations which pretty much require them), then it can sound laughably unrealistic. For example, if someone had just lost £1million or been horribly injured, then they’re probably not going to say something like “Oh bother!” or “Oh fiddlesticks!”. Unless, of course, this is done deliberately for comedic effect.

Likewise, doing the old euphemistic trick of saying “he cursed loudly” or “she swore” can make you sound slightly old-fashioned and it should only be used very rarely or in stories or comics where, for whatever reason, you’re not allowed to use any profanity.

Likewise, you should only use symbol swearing (eg: “#&*$#! !”) in your comics if you are a syndicated newspaper cartoonist, or if you’re trying to parody syndicated newspaper cartoons. Like this:

"Damania Lite - Novelty" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Lite – Novelty” By C. A. Brown

Even then, if you’re not allowed to use any real profanity in your stories, then it’s usually better to use other euphemisms which at least sound vaguely like the words themseleves. At least this sounds close to being realistic.

The general rule about swearing in fiction is to either only use four-letter words when they would realistically be used. Yes, some people use these words as a form of punctuation, but most people save them for informal and/or dramatic situations.

If there’s going to be a lot of profanity in your story, then stick to using milder (but realistic) words for most of your story and save the really good words for important situations in your story.

Or, if you really have to use a ridiculous number of four-letter words in your story, then make sure to use them in a wide variety of amusing, inventive and dramatic ways (if you don’t know how to do this, then consult Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics for many hilariously excellent examples of how to be creatively crude).

There is nothing more boring and repetitive than just reading the same four-letter words in literally every line or a story or a comic. So, either use them creatively or save them for special occasions.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂