My Take on the Use of Profanity in Writing
I was raised in a very small conservative community. Swearing was looked down upon, especially if the profanity involved the use of the words “God” or “Jesus.” Although I left that small town fifty years ago, I still cringed at the thought of using cuss words when it came to writing My Darling Dorothy.
Dialogue, in order to be believable has to match the character. In My Darling Dorothy, Jack was a young man with a tenth grade education from a small country school. His vocabulary was quite limited because of his lack of education but also because of his environment. No one that he came into contact with on a daily basis had an expansive vocabulary. When armed only with a limited vocabulary and in need of expressing one’s emotions, profanity fills the bill quite nicely, and Jack used it, maybe not extensively, but frequently.
The other issue I faced was a desire to be true to the character upon which Jack was based; my father. While it was not acceptable to swear in my hometown, my father swore like a sailor. How could I write believable dialogue about this man and his friends without the use of profanity? The question arose as to whether I should whitewash my father’s personality or let it shine through in all its cussin’ glory.
When I imagined deleting all the profanity in the novel, I had a sudden flashback to my father’s funeral. It took place in a church in the little town where he and my mother lived for fifty years. I requested that “Tennessee Waltz” be played as part of the music at the funeral, but my request was denied. Secular music had no place in the church according to the young minister in charge of the service. I gave in without so much as a whimper. The service took place, whitewashed in my estimation and focused more on who my father was not as opposed to who he really was. I have always regretted that decision.
Now, fourteen years later, here I was, about to whitewash my father again. This time, however, I refused. I made a commitment to remain true to his character, flaws and all. He may have been crass at times and he was certainly not an eloquent speaker, but he was my father; a man who worked sixteen hour days, six days a week, plus five hours on Sunday, to keep his family fed, clothed and housed. He came home exhausted and yet still found the energy to get down on the floor and play “horsey” with his children. There is honor in that, honor that demands respect.
There isn’t an inordinate amount of profanity in My Darling Dorothy, to be sure, and I would encourage all writers to think carefully about how profanity is used in their writing. If every other word is the infamous “F—-” word, perhaps it should be toned down. Perhaps, but it is entirely dependent upon the character and what the character would say and do in any given situation. What matters most is whether you are creating an authentic, believable character and if that includes the use of profanity, so be it.