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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

He Said What?!?

It’s not possible to please everyone. This is a universal truth most of us acknowledge, and yet we strive to do so in certain situations. Beginning writers are often plagued by this desire to please, to be loved by all. The writer tries to incorporate every piece of feedback received from contest judges or critique partners until she no longer recognizes her work. Her voice fades. But wanting to please isn’t unique to new writers. Who doesn’t want her work admired and appreciated by the masses? I do, but I know it’s part of a fantasy. As most rejection letters state, writing is a subjective business.

Still, for the past week, I’ve struggled with whether or not to be true to a character I’m writing. I type the words as he speaks them, knowing the process is honest, but later worry about offending certain people by his vulgar language and attitude toward women. Believe me, I’m offended by him! But that is the point. His purpose is to create conflict and stir emotions. His actions build empathy for the heroine.

I’ve been engaging in an internal debate about being authentic versus protecting the sensibilities of others. I’m not sure if I would give the argument more than a passing thought if not for a few readers’ loops I’ve read lately or conversations with some of the older people I see in my work as a social worker. One of the lovely ladies I see through my hospice work said she doesn’t see the need for bad language in a book. Stories can be told just as well without curse words. She feels some authors are trying to show how many bad words they know and all the creative combinations they can make.

She may have a point, but I don’t agree that every story can be told just as well without the inclusion of vulgar language. A drug dealer isn’t likely to say, “Oh, heavens!” or participate in a quilting circle, unless he’s in witness protection. And even then, I bet he would let a bad word slip if he stubbed his toe.

Well, Saturday evening I found some peace while browsing the shelves at Barnes and Noble in Stephen King’s book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”. I always open a book in the middle and read a little to see if it grabs me. I happened to open to page 185 and read, “As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue 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.” Mr. King said he regularly receives angry letters from readers who accuse him of being vulgar and/or bigoted, and most often their letters reference the dialogue by one of his characters. Overall, his take is that being inauthentic is breaking a promise between writer and readers. If nothing else, the writer owes it to readers to be honest, knowing some people don’t want to hear the truth.

I’d like to hear other opinions on this topic. As a reader are you willing to sacrifice honesty in dialogue so you or others are not exposed to offensive language, or are you willing to tolerate offensiveness for the story remaining true to life?


  1. Generally, I try to reserve the cursing for big moments when the character loses control. Like anything else in writing, it loses it's impact when it repetitious. I know people in real life who can't get through a sentence without cursing, but it would be tedious to read their speech in print.

    So I tend to think of it as a point system: This character is worthy of 5 curse words. Where should I place them throughout the novel? Silly, I know, but it works for me.

    I loved the Stephen King quote. Great post as usual, Samantha! :)

  2. Good question: I used little bad language in my recently launched book but it wasn't really necessary anyway. I definitely agree that if you're writing about a subject that is obviously rife with street-talk or language, then it would sound ridiculous not to use it and portray the author as someone who is simply scared to offend rather than speak honestly.

    CJ xx

  3. Samantha, it is only Wed and you are asking me to process such a hard topic!! Come on, girlfriend!!

    Excellent post and so thought provoking. I have to go with the 'trueness' of the character, though. When I think about some of the books and characters that have moved me, taught me or just plain stayed with me, it is because they have become a part of me. I assume this is because of the genuineness of the character. Plus, people can be so 'sensitive' these days. My rule of thumb--a quote from one of the people I admire the most--"nobody can offend you without your permission". If a character offends you, put the book down and go buy something from a more trite author (I know you know whose name I want to write down here, but I will not throw stones on your blog). HAHA. Have a great day.

  4. Clarissa,

    Too funny on the point system, but it seems like a good process. Not only would it be tedious to read some people's dialogue with all of their cursing, it is tedious to listen to it. Any actual dialogue would be hard to take, because we really are very boring creatures at times. Using curse words for impact is a good
    rule of thumb, I think. :)

  5. CJ,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Congratulations on you book launch! What subgenre do you write?

  6. Anonymous,

    Love the quote! And how true about giving permission to be offended.

    One book that has stayed with me forever is "The House of Sand and Fog". I disliked every character in the book except the innocent boy. I found them all offensive on some level, but they sure are memorable. :)

  7. I'm all for honesty. Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think every character needs to have a potty mouth. LOL. But I have no problem with those characters who do curse or speak with a more vulgar tongue, as long as it is true to who they are. If they speak that way, there needs to be a reason for why they do, and that reason needs to be clear to the reader.

    I've written heroines who are more foul-mouthed than their heroes (in a Regency setting, no less!) but in the case of both the hero and the heroine, it was true to who they were. She was raised with foul-mouthed brothers and cousins, and he was raised surrounded by women.

    My only rule of thumb in regards to this is to be sure, if you are being true to your characters, that the reader doesn't have any reason to question that.

  8. Catherine,

    "If you are being true to your characters, the reader doesn't have any reason to question that." Excellent rule of thumb!

    Such wisdom today from everyone. I'm loving the comments. :)

  9. What I want from an author is for them to be honest. If the character in their head speaks a certain way, swears or sprouts nonsense, then I want that. If they've done their job well, the reasons for the character's attitude and language will come through in the writing. The only time I have a problem with character dialogue is when the character uses language inappropriate to the time setting. Modern terms in a historical setting tends to stop me in my tracks.

  10. Heather,


    Peace out,
    Samantha ;)

    PS - Great to see you!

  11. Honesty every single time! (But that is me being true to my character - and you're not likely to meet someone more honest than me.)

  12. Ava,

    You are very honest in your stories, even tackling difficult subjects. I appreciate this about your writing.

    Thanks for stopping by today! :)

  13. I overlook language or situations (though I admit, there are some situations I wish I had brain-bleach to remove) in most cases understanding it is a character and it is necessary to the story.

    As a writer (to-be-published at an unknown date, so this may change) I tend to err on the side of caution, stepping out of character and asking, WOULD he have really said that or am I just parroting what I saw on Dexter?

    I think there's a line you can draw. I'm fond of authors who write things like, "He uttered a curse" or "she used a word normally reserved for adults only" or some other clever way of saying it without SAYING it.