Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In Which We Talk Swears

*there will be swearing in this post. Look away if you do not approve

Like the title says, let's have a damn chat about swears (see what I did there?)

Specifically I want to talk about swears in fantasy (or sci-fi, or maybe even dystopian) novels.
If you're writing contemporary, or even paranormal or anything where your setting is the "here and now", well, your swears are already created for you. They're the ones we use every day (well, that some of us use every day *furtive eyes*)

BUT, what if you're writing a novel that doesn't take place here? What if it's 300 years in the future, or a fantasy world or wherever?
Fuck is probably not going to cut it.

It's important to remember, though, when making up swears, that you don't just make up any word to replace Fuck.
I mean, you can substitute Frem, or whatever, but it will hold a lot more believability if you pick a word that has actual meaning in the world.

When writing Glimpse, I needed some swears. Sure, I could have used fuck and shit (and there are some damns and hells) but it would have been a little lazy of me. My story is not on earth as we know it.
Pier, the main character, lives on an island and their whole culture is based around the sea. So, though shit may still be able to work, would a sea-related curse be even more believable?
The short answer is Yes. Also, creating world specific swears is a quick and easy way to fill out your world-building.

So, for Glimpse, I brainstormed with Twin and Brother and Also Hannah and Teebore, and the two main swears I came up with were:


Both of them are related to the sea, or ships or whatever. They're believable and they work.
Also, if you plan to use any form of God as an expletive, it's important to take into consideration whether or not God even plays a part in your milieu.
In Glimpse, Pier's culture worships a sea goddess called Mear.
So instead of God-Damn, we have Mear Damn You.

Here's another example. In Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, the MCs are typically dragon riders (holy HELL I want to read those again RIGHT NOW). Even if they aren't dragon riders, all their lives revolve around dragons and fire lizards.
The swears they use?


In Across the Universe, the swear used on the ship is Frex, which seems like a no-nonsense word, until you find out that the letters FRX appear on certain areas of the ship. If you spend generations looking at those letters, it's completely believable that Frex could rise out of that.

Of course, all of this is relative to whether or not your character would even use swears. Pier most definitely would.
Kiersten White's Evie does, but in an adorable, believable, way: Bleep.

You should first and foremost do what is right for your character, even if it goes against your own beliefs. If you force a character to conform against their nature, then the character will read false and weak. And that's something we all want to avoid.

So, give me your damn thoughts. What are some of the swears you've used?


Dan said...

Rotting good post!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is a problem I don't have to worry about since I write YA contemporary (and it definitely has swear words in it). But you made a very good point. Something I've never even thought about, though some of the YA dystopian novels I've read have stuck to the swear words we're familiar with.

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

Great post, and a topic I've been through with my Critters. Two of us write YA and they are set in "this" time period. The present, so if we choose to swear then they would all be familiar to today's slang. HOWEVER, because my characters belong to a secret society of people who hunt the vile underbelly they have a tendancy to NOT swear, which seems strange because they are hardened people. But, to my defense, they are very tactical so their words are carefully chosen and in a sense military slang. Which I had to pick up for believability. It comes as more of a shock when one does go off the handle and swears because it's out of character but occasionlly no other word can sum up your feelings better than one that's four letters ;)

Hannah Kincade said...

Well you know how I feel about swears, they're fucking awesome. Although I do enjoy a good "balls" every now and again, or all the time. Damn that Supernatural, leaking into my real life. I'd like to imagine that if Supernatural wasn't on the CW, that it would be filled with bloody violence and glorious swears.

Summer Frey said...

I frakkin' second what Hannah said.

Anne said...

i always appreciated 'go-ram' from firefly

Anne Gallagher said...

I've been writing Regency romance and have generally always used "bloody hell" for everything but I just found out yesterday that the prefix 'bloody' is equal to or greater than 'fuck'. I can't have my 22 year old heroine calling the villainess a 'bloody hag' now can I? Well, I can but it wouldn't look right.

"God's teeth" is appropriate for her. However, when the Prince and Ellis are having a conversation, lovely Prinny yells, "Bloody ballocks!" And because I find that just so fab, I'm using it now when I scream at the dogs. My neighbors just love me.

And as you know, I just love 'bilge'. It's so appropriate to Pier.

Teebore said...

First of all, excellent fucking post.

Secondly, I loved all your swears in Glimpse. They were very clever and well used.

I don't think I've ever made up curse words for a book (even "Fate Lost" was close enough to our time that I just used our swears) but now I want to...

Also, if you plan to use any form of God as an expletive, it's important to take into consideration whether or not God even plays a part in your milieu.

Very true. Eight year old Teebore was thrown into a major existential crisis when Han Solo told the deck officer "then I'll see you in hell!" when leaving to search for Luke on Hoth during The Empire Strikes Back. I was all like, "whoa, do they have a hell in the Star Wars universe? Is there a heaven? Is it just the Force?" and so on. Stuff I'd never really thought of before in relation to Star Wars. Definitely twisted my little mind up for a bit.

You should first and foremost do what is right for your character, even if it goes against your own beliefs. If you force a character to conform against their nature, then the character will read false and weak.

Absolutely, and well said.

Teebore said...


Bart: "I'm glad we're stranded! It'll be just like the Swiss Family Robinson, only with more cursing! We'll live like kings! Damn
hell ass kings!"

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Battlestar Galactica's frak comes to mind...
it took me a while to decide what I was going to do for CassaStar. Didn't feel like adding to the list of made-up words, so just went with damn.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Dan - i enjoy any reason to swear...

Stina - sometimes i'm envious of just falling back on the tried and true swears and all their different conotations

Erica - that is so true! I love when a character, who never ever swears, shouts an F-bomb. It has so much more awesome impact

Hannah - oh i totes agree. We all know Dean would be a swearing FIEND

Summer - it was pretty awesome. I now i want to watch some supernatural

Anne - yeah me too. For a completely made up word, it function perfectly. I really think it needs to be added to today's vernacular

Anne - "Bloody Bollocks" is possibly one of the best swears i've ever read. Straight up.

Teebore - LOL poor little baby Teebore. That is adorable. Also, sometimes it's really awesome to be able to rely on a well placed "fuck". There were many a time in Glimpse that i wished i could have used it
Also, "Hell Ass kings" FTW!

Alex - yeah i flirted with adding Frak into the post, but i haven't watched enough BSG to feel comfortable with analyzing it

Jessica Bell said...

I'm afraid I'm not as creative as you. lol. I only stick with the common ones, plus a few British equivalents like 'flip' and 'sodding hell'. :o)

Laura Marcella said...

Great post! I like reading fantasy and the curse words used in one of my favorite series, The Axis Trilogy by Sara Douglass, is based on their god. Other clever cursing is used that pertains to the world, but I can't remember what they are. It makes total sense! I don't write fantasy, but I imagine the planning is crrraaazzzyyy because you have to make up an entire new world that includes those little details like cursing!

Matthew MacNish said...

I think that Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker had the best curse/slang language of any book I've read lately.

Grind that.
Blood and rust.
Sliding high.


My own novel is contemporary, somewhat, so shit and fuck and piss work pretty well.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Jessica - i also like to tap into british curses. Good times

Laura - i typically don't plan it. I just wait until i reach a point in the novel where i need to use a curse and then try to come up with something on the spot

Matt - Pretty much Ship Breaker can do no wrong

Nate Wilson said...

I write stories set in present day, so if the characters swear they do so with the profanity we all know and love (e.g. fuck, shit, motherfucking, Bieber). Although, I did like that one character who I gave a series of unique interjections (e.g. "By Euripedes' beard!")

And of course, I appreciate the ingenuity of Joss Whedon to create a world where everyone talks shit in Chinese.

Lola Sharp said...

You can count me in on the Joss Whedon love.

That said, I have never written anything in the distant future, so I've not had to make up future curse words. Though, I am rather fond of using creative combos of slang (slants, for example...slutty pant=slants) and swears, and not limited to English langauge. (punany, for example...and then on to punannynanerson)


Heather said...

I'm trying to keep my swears to a minimum. I love "asshat" so that will make its way in im sure. I do love this post.

And I just noticed you are also a gamer girl! I don't play halo, the hubs does, but I am a COD playin', zombie killing mah-chine. MissPriss75 if you ever get bored!

Heather said...

And, is that DAWSON flipping me off? I can't tell?

Maria Zannini said...

I don't get a chance to make up swears. I think the closest I got was in Touch Of Fire where a character yelled out, 'Buddha's balls'.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Nate - LMAO! I think it is our duty to spread "Bieber" as a swear.

Lola - i'm a firm fan of punannynanerson. Who wouldn't be?

Heather - asshat is a tried and true fav of mine. And i will TOTALLy friend you next time i'm on! I dabble a bit in COD

Heather - it is! I'm a big fan of VanDerMemes

Maria - Budsha's Balls has a very nice ring to it. It's that double "b"

Linda Leszczuk said...

Made up swear words also solves a problem for your younger readers who are reading words they're not allowed to say. In fact, your alternatives might just catch on.

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, I love this analysis--makes total sense! I don't write fantasy or sci fi, but dystopian isn't something I'd cancel off my list. My books have regular swearing as I don't think teens in lousy situations are realistic without it. I read a fantasy series (Sword of Truth) where the wizard used 'bags' fairly frequently--it never explained why, but it amused me and was a nice character cue for who was speaking.

Rebecca T. said...

I love those invented words for your story! I think they fit in better with your world as well :D

You know me and swearing. But the fantasy I'm writing begins in our world and the MC and her friend are from contemporary times. So this was definitely something I thought about. Because we tend to use odd expressions at my house (Oh Buzzards!, What the Hay Bale, Cheese and Crackers!) But I didn't want my characters using odd things without a reason.

So I had to create a backstory the core of which is both girls love food, but one of them has spent most of her life preparing to be a chef. She's about to go to culinary school. So they use food driven exclamations (what the marshmallow, sweet asparagus tips, brussel sprouts, etc) so it helps with character development and I can avoid the swearing at the same time :D

Wow. Didn't mean for this to turn into a book.

Holly Ruggiero said...

I like invented swears. I don’t have any good ones. I need to think on this.

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