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Just Because My Characters Cuss Doesn’t Mean I Do

I've Been CussingFormer Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Michael Hyatt, recently wrote a popular article that made the social media rounds. In How Much Business is Your Profanity Costing You, Hyatt argues that though profanity has become trendy in some circles, it can ultimately cost content providers a wider audience.

A majority of people swear from time to time, but it’s recently become far more prevalent in public. Why? One of the main reasons in the business world is creating an edge.

“Uttering a taboo word in public is a great hierarchy-buster,” says Lee Siegel. “It also gives you an extra boost in a society that is becoming ever more competitive.”

Most speakers and bloggers I know who use profanity do it for this reason. It’s part of their personal style, meant to set them apart from other communicators. But like anything, there’s an opportunity cost involved in dropping F-bombs and using blasphemy.

After listing three possible reasons that the use of profanity could be hurting someone’s business, Hyatt concludes with this tweetable:

If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.

For the most part, I agree with Hyatt’s take. He’s not framing this as a prude, nor is he suggesting that certain words contain some kind of magical power to defile. It’s the inferences that much of Hyatt’s audience draws that bothers me.

Though Hyatt’s platform is now largely related to the subjects of leadership and business, he gained much prominence through his Thomas Nelson days. As a result, many Christian writers read and respect Hyatt. He was the keynote speaker at the last ACFW conference I attended (2012) and still blogs often about publishing related issues. So when this article started popping up in my social media feed, it was posted by Christian novelists, most of whom extrapolated Hyatt’s point thus:

If you can’t be interesting without profanity (in your fiction), then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.

So while Hyatt was talking more about business than fiction writing, most of the folks I follow immediately used the piece to buttress an ever-popular argument in Christian writers’ circles: Avoiding profanity is also good for the Christian fiction business.

Writer /editor friend Johne Cook linked to the Hyatt article on his Facebook page. The ensuing discussion immediately turned to “profanity in fiction.”

Commenter Nora cut to the chase:

As writers we should be able to come up with ways to explain ourselves without it. As for dialog, you don’t have to write everything people say word for word: She swore under her breath; he would have cussed her out but that little voice inside of his head that sounded like his mother wouldn’t let him: You were supposed to keep your mouth shut, stupid. He swore as he hit the narc across the head.

This is just me though and I’m certainly no expert in the area. However, what’s more powerful telling someone they’re lower than a worm in a ditch or that they’re an xxx-xxxx. I’m just saying.

Personally, I think telling someone they’re an “xxx-xxxx” is more powerful than telling them they’re a “worm in a ditch.” But that’s just me. My point  here is to simply say that many Christian writers who follow Hyatt seemed to interpret his words as pertaining to the use of profanity in fiction.  Their logic looks something like this:

  • creating characters who use profanity equals using profanity
  • using profanity means you’re not interesting

Which prompted commenter Mary on Johne’s post to reply,

“…what bothers me is this ‘If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.’

I’m sorry, Mr. Hyatt. You don’t know me. You’ve probably not read my fiction. So to make a blanket statement like that is, well, judgmental and presumptive. And offensive. Who are you to say that because I use the f-word in a story I’m ‘not interesting’?”

In all fairness, Hyatt did not say that using the f-word in a story makes a novelist uninteresting. However, this is the line of reasoning that many of Hyatt’s readers appear to have followed.

In my mind, the anti-profanity arguments in fiction are uncompelling. Writers talk a lot about their characters being autonomous. Which means, at times, your characters will say or do something wildly inappropriate. In fact, remaining true to your characters means letting them act in ways you don’t personally agree with. Nevertheless, it amazes me how many writers hedge at these implications.

In speaking about character dialog, Stephen King, in his book On Writing says:

As with other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialog is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or down-right psychopathic. In the majority of cases what my correspondents are hot under the collar about relates to something in the dialogue… (pp. 185-186 emphasis mine)

Maybe this is why so many authors sanitize their characters — we’re just trying to avoid “criticism.” We don’t want to appear “foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic” or… uninteresting.  So we censor our characters. And construct vapid arguments to support the censorship.

Listen, I don’t use much profanity in real life. I think it’s sloppy. In this, I agree with Michael Hyatt. My characters, however, don’t always think like me or Mike.

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Ramona Richards March 30, 2015, 8:45 AM

    To me, the bottom line for this is know your genre/know your audience (including your publisher if you have one). If both accept profanity, have at it. If not, accept the risks when you push that boundary and move on. A personal aside: I cuss; my characters usually do not because of my market. I do think Mike’s premise (profanity can lose customers) is one to take to heart, less so than the “you’re not interesting is you do” on.

    • Lara Van Hulzen March 31, 2015, 6:02 PM

      I can’t even tell you how much I adore you for this comment.

  • Jill March 30, 2015, 9:49 AM

    You might as well change that to “If you can’t be interesting without using big words, then you’re not that interesting”. I hear that a lot. But the other one exists, of course. There is some convergence/crossover between the two cults.

    • Kat Heckenbach March 30, 2015, 4:31 PM

      This. Yes, Jill, exactly. What it really boils down to is an attitude of, “If you can’t tell a story without (insert thing I don’t like) you’re not a good writer.”

      That said, there is a point at which cussing just becomes this thing done for shock value. As do other things, like sex and gore. It’s not the cussing (or whatever) itself, though, it’s how it’s used.

      Also, we know that plenty of great writing gets passed up in the CBA because it contains objectionable words–but maybe if you have to *rely* on not cussing, your writing isn’t very interesting either. The idea that your book is somehow better *simply* because you kept it clean makes no sense to me.

      • Jill March 30, 2015, 10:37 PM

        “If you can’t tell a story w/o….you’re really stupid.” It’s just pure distasteful condescension. And you’re absolutely correct. Leaving out cuss words doesn’t make a writer interesting or intelligent. It just makes the writer publishable in the Christian market.

        • Mike Duran March 31, 2015, 5:37 AM

          Jill, this is my favorite quote of this thread: “Leaving out cuss words doesn’t make a writer interesting or intelligent. It just makes the writer publishable in the Christian market.”

          • Kat Heckenbach March 31, 2015, 9:23 AM

            Agreed, Mike, that’s a great quote :).

            I get that you shouldn’t use cussing as a crutch. I think if said properly, that thought can be conveyed. I can see saying, “If you find it impossible to tell an interesting story that can stand on its own, so you throw a bunch of cuss words at your readers to sound gritty, then you’re not a very good writer.” But the way this always plays out is, “See! Cussing is crass and you obviously can’t write well if you feel you need to use such language.” Those things do NOT mean the same thing AT ALL.

          • Erica March 31, 2015, 3:24 PM

            Great way to put it!

  • Iain Anderson March 30, 2015, 1:03 PM

    I always find these discussions as it seems, from one living and writing across The Pond, to be very much an American phenomenon. I live in central Scotland and so the people I come into contact with generally tend to use profanity in place of punctuation half the time. How on Earth could I represent them authentically if I censor their vocabulary (or lack there of)? Partly it’s a factor of our countries’ respective sizes: the UK in general (let alone pokey wee Scotland!) is just too small to maintain a specifically Christian market; here you’re all tossed in the same tank together (Christian and secular alike) and have to sink or swim based on the quality of your writing alone. To me, this is a positive thing. It encourages the craft above any considerations of doctrine or a ‘checklist’ mentality. I swear, I’ll admit it (not nearly as much as I once did and getting less all the time happily) but this attitude I have noticed in Evangelical circles regarding artistic expression reminds me too much of 5 year olds in the playground: ‘Ooooh!! You swear-ed! I’m telling on you!’ Yeesh. Grow up, pleasae!!

  • Iain Anderson March 30, 2015, 1:03 PM

    *interesting! I find these discussion interesting!

  • Katherine Coble March 30, 2015, 1:36 PM

    You know what’s “interesting”?
    Going on Dave Ramsey and telling people they need to stock up on gold and cans of beans because the world is going to end in 18 months. And if they want to know more, they can buy your book! At Family Christian Bookstore!

    That’s “interesting”. It’s also “exploitative” and “abusive” and “false teaching”.

    Mike Hyatt can keep “interesting” as far as I’m concerned.

    I’ll stick with integrity–both in my daily life and my written works.

  • Mirtika March 30, 2015, 2:58 PM

    I don’t get how they don’t see that what a character says is the character, not the novelist, unless the writer has specifically said: “Oh, I based this one on my own self, foul mouth and all.”

    When a character kills, it’s not me. When a character says there is no God (a worse sin than any F-bomb), that’s not me. When a character abducts a woman to rape her, that’s not me. When a character joins a Satanic cult, that’s reaaalllly not me.

    So, why can characters kill, abduct, rape, deny God, and become Satanists, but a character can’t cuss?

    Makes no fricken sense–none–that this a big thing. It’s really illogical and kinda stupid.

  • R. L. Copple March 31, 2015, 9:31 AM

    It is obvious a lot of people are misreading Hyatt’s tweet. What he says is spot on for most any kind of writing. He’s not saying don’t use profanity. Read it again.

    If you can’t be interesting without profantiy, then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.

    Perfectly true of any writing. Allow me to paraphrase: If you take the profantiy out of your writing and it isn’t interesting, let’s face it, it isn’t interesting with it in there.

    If, however, it is interesting with the profanity removed, then it is interesting with it.

    You can’t derive the concept of “Including profantiy makes your writing not interesting” from his statement if you stay true to what he actually said instead of what people are reading into it.

    That said, his main point probably does apply to fiction as well as business writing. Including profantiy, even in dialog, will offend some readers and you’ll lose that audience. Maybe you’ll gain others to offset it? Problem is, not too many who use profantiy are offended when it isn’t there. If the story and characters are interesting and believable, they’ll usually not notice the absence of profanity.

    It comes down to knowing your audience and what they find to be believable characters. You aren’t going to please everyone. And using profanity means you are including one audience at the expense of another. Those are part of the business decisions any writer makes whether they realize it or not.

  • John Robinson March 31, 2015, 9:34 AM

    The CBA is strange little beastie, and has been since its inception. I don’t forsee it changing one whit.

    Dammit.

  • D.M. Dutcher March 31, 2015, 11:33 AM

    “There are no hard or fast rules of decorum any more. You can pretty much use the language you want, though the magazines have some limits. That doesn’t mean that writers are ‘free’ now, however. It only means that the burden of doing so is thrown back on the writer.

    What you must remember is that language has real effects on people. If you have a character who constantly uses foul language, that language will have effects on the people around him. But if you actually put that language in your story explicitly, that bad language will have similar effects on your audience…”

    -How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card

    It’s not just a Christian issue. There have been plenty of secular writers who tried to deal with it, and used acronyms or made-up words because they got this concept. Tanj, frak, frelling, and others tried to give the effect of swearing without audience reaction, and the result has been mixed. I think people overestimate the amount of swearing people actually encounter with others, and its effect on people. It’s not like every work of secular fiction uses it, or that it’s really all that necessary.

    Mostly it’s about realism in your work, but he does have a point.

  • Guy Stewart March 31, 2015, 2:29 PM

    “Listen, I don’t use much profanity in real life. I think it’s sloppy. In this, I agree with Michael Hyatt. My characters, however, don’t always think like me or Mike.”

    “As with other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialog is honesty.”

    I don’t use profanity much in real life, either. I have used it for shock effect. I have used it when no other word quite fits my outrage.

    But when I write for the outsider market; when I write about outsider teenagers; the fact is that they cuss, swear, and use vulgar language. If my characters did NOT, they would not in any way reflect most teenagers. (I didn’t say ALL teenagers: I did not cuss when I was a kid — though I mostly didn’t because my parents, brothers, and sister used “foul” language without thinking consistently and regularly and I was rebelling against my family like any good teen…)

    (PS — we’ll see if the conversation stops here like it usually does whenever I comment…I ALWAYS seem to get in on the end of the discussion!)

  • Erica March 31, 2015, 3:31 PM

    I never considered myself a Christian author, instead I am a Christian(or believer) who love to write stories.

    In my stories, my characters could be shy, demure or totally blunt. I understand why someone would write “swore under her breath” rather than what that swear word is. But it could show more honesty if the actual word is set in dialog.

    I guess the bottom line is if you want to write what you want, then self publish or submit to a secular publisher. Christian publishing is not for you.

  • Lara Van Hulzen March 31, 2015, 6:08 PM

    I love this discussion. I write Faith Based Romance and decided to publish on my own because, although my rejection letters said they loved my writing, I wasn’t conservative enough for most Christian publishing houses. And that’s okay. Like Ramona Richards said, know your audience and your publisher. Since going on my own I have found an audience that doesn’t mind a swear word here and there if it fits with the character and dialogue and I never do it just to do it. And so far, I’m having more fun than I should in my writing and in the publishing process. The response from readers has been amazing – so positive. I truly believe there’s room at the table for all kinds of genres and styles in Christian publishing.

  • Iola April 1, 2015, 1:03 AM

    It never occurred to me that people would read Michael Hyatt’s post and apply it to fiction. In fiction, swearing or not swearing will depend on your characters and the intended audience. It would seem odd for the hero in a action thriller to not swear as the enemy shoots at him and his team, and it would seem equally odd to see a lady in a Regency romance swear like a US Navy SEAL.

    I’d also note that different people have different standards when it comes to what is swearing and what isn’t (didn’t we recently have this conversation over taking the Lord’s name in vain in fiction?). I recently read a CBA book which used a word I consider to be swearing (the homosexual equivalent of the f-word) , but other reviewers seemed to be charmed by the English culture. Maybe I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe they don’t know what the word means.

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