Clarissa Johal: Swearing on Paper

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Swearing on Paper

I’ve been working on my next novel these past few weeks and the days have positively flown by. This is a good thing, of course, because eventually I will hit a wall and fall into a heap of burnt-out exhaustion. But for now, the writing is flowing. What has been interesting to me is the direction this latest novel is taking. Characters that were intended to be protagonists, have turned evil, the storyline is spinning off into some bizarre but wonderful tangent and there are times my fingers can’t keep up with the chattering in my head.
In addition to that, there happens to be (gasp!) swearing.

I’m usually quite conservative when it comes to swearing in my novels. In my YA fantasy Pradee, there is no swearing for obvious reasons—it’s YA literature. In Between, my paranormal fantasy coming from Musa Publishing, I found that I enjoyed a bit more leeway as far as how my characters expressed themselves. Still, you simply won’t find an f-bomb in that novel. It just never came up.
I’m definitely not a prude. I have no problem with my daughters expressing themselves freely at home, as long as they are mindful in public. I, myself, have been known to have quite the mouth on me when I get angry. But for some reason, I have a very hard time typing out...swear words.
However, the line has been crossed in this latest work. And I swear (no pun intended) that it’s not my fault.

First, let me say that this novel has taken several twists and turns and has gone into a direction I hadn’t intended. That happens sometimes, well, a lot of times actually. I always tell people that my characters tell me what to write, not vice versa. And apparently, the characters in this novel have no issues with dropping four-letter words here and there. It hasn’t been excessive, but they keep popping up on my page, unbidden. Last week, I found myself deleting these expletives, but gosh darn it, they kept coming back.

I was thinking this morning about why it bothered me so much to type those verboten words. It’s not like it bothered me to read them in other people’s novels. Perhaps it stemmed from my upbringing. My mother was pretty strict when it came to language. If my dad or I slipped up with a “damn it” or “crap,” I was immediately punished and my dad got the silent treatment—sometimes for hours. My mother always said that a lady never swore and neither did a true gentleman.  She was a bit old-fashioned. I am a lady, but yes, sometimes I swear like a sailor.

Just not on paper.

But here I was, swearing on paper and feeling guilty about it. There was one particular instance where I typed out a four-letter word and deleted it five times before it fell out of my own mouth and I just left it.

Why are swear words so taboo? They’re just words, after all, and they all seem to be in the dictionary. I decided to look up the history of profanity and came across this; “Swearing and cursing are modes of speech existing in all human languages. They perform certain social and psychological functions, and utilize particular linguistic and neurological mechanisms.” Well, there you go. I have a minor in Anthropology, I should know that. I was performing a social and psychological function by allowing my characters to express themselves as freely on paper as they were expressing themselves in my head.  I also read that, “Swearing is a widespread but perhaps underappreciated anger management technique.” My mother did have some issues there, maybe she just needed to swear more (I’ll get struck by lightning for that one, I know, I know). I went onto to read that the Bible, Shakespeare and the earliest known writings also contained swearing. Icing on the cake, boys and girls. If Shakespeare did it, I’m in. I do remember reading Shakespeare in university and coming across quite a bit of colorful language. It just happened to be language we no longer use.

So, I will continue to let my characters have their freedom and will try my best not to cringe when they toss something out there that causes my fingers to freeze and stutter.
After that, however, I promise to make them go stand in the corner for not behaving like ladies and gentlemen.


Rhea Rhodan said...

The characters in my recently published romance novel, "Finding Grace," have terrible potty mouths. Especially the heroine. I was a little chagrined when one of my male readers was more than a little taken aback. None of the women and not the other two guys I shared it with cared. I expected my editor to say something, though. She didn't, other than to prefer uppercase when using the deity's name in vain (which makes me cringe).

My current WIP features a heroine who eschews any sort of foul language, although the hero throws a few around.

I think it's important to let our characters be who they are, even if their behavior surprises us. I say, good for you, Clarissa!

Clarissa Johal, Author said...

Thanks, Rhea (: