Swearing Like a Sailor: Cussing and Insults in Fiction

rageSorry for the absence lately! Aside from some family affairs and work, the reason I haven’t been posting is…I didn’t know what to write about! But yesterday I had a stroke of inspiration while reviewing my bookshelf. It’s not anything “revolutionary,” but more of something I’ve come to appreciate lately.

Given the title of this post, it may be needless to say, but strong language ahead.

I grew up in a pretty strict family. I wasn’t sheltered from everything, but I had the type of parents who believed in no TV on school nights, no hanging out with friends without a chaperone, and go to church on Sundays. In addition, I was raised strictly not to swear. Like, ever. My friends can tell you that from middle school on, I had a funny way of cursing. I could barely say ‘damn it’ without feeling guilty.

But that all flew out the window in college. It was fuck, shit, ass, motherfucker, bitch, fuck-a-duck and more. It was liberating. Not only was it because my friends were just as linguistically creative with their swearing, but it also stemmed from the new kinds of books I was picking up. I was gravitating away from the YA fiction towards the harder, grittier, back-alley tales of urban fantasy and fictional worlds. I came to appreciate unreliable narrators, the rugged heroes who hung out in taverns, and the vengeful thieves or magicians who wanted nothing more than to slaughter the enemy.

Writing Tip: Why Have Cussing at All?

Easy, because we’re human (duh!). But, just like how every word needs a purpose, there should be a purpose to your swearing when you’re writing characters. Is your main character a demure church-mouse girl who’s soft-spoken? Having her shout “FUCK” in a scary situation brings out another side of her that you, the writer, may not have realized.

Is your OC a hardened, no-nonsense Harley rider? Replace all the typical swear words with something funny like “fudge” or “duck me” and your beloved rider has a soft side that’s appealing to readers. Exploring the syntax and vocabulary of your characters in exercises is fun and revealing. Try writing letters or messages between characters about an intense situation: what’s their reaction? How do they swear?

Another fun exercise could be exploring where their swearing came from: what were their parents like? Their group of friends? What culture do they live in? If it’s a fictional world, what’s it like to cuss there? Do the upper class cuss more than the lower class? Do they each have their own cussing and slang? It’s a lot to explore and works great for world-building. Language is just as an important part as the setting and the history; use it like a coldcocking weapon.

Insults: Just as Fun as Cussing

If you’re in a fictional world, and saying ‘fuck you’ just doesn’t get the message across? Then you start hurling the insults like mud. Seeing what these writers have come up with when it comes to insults has been an absolute treat. It’s like they played roulette with a thesaurus.

My absolute favorite of these is from Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey. I can’t even describe it…it just has to be experienced. Take a look at some memorable quotes:

  • ““I’m steel-toed boots in a ballet-slipper world.”
  • “I came ready to fight Genghis Khan and I walk in on a shut-in playing the biggest Dungeons and Dragons game in history.”
  • “If Donald Trump and the Wicked Witch of the West had a kid, it would be Jayne-Anne. She looks like a librarian with some money and good taste in clothes but underneath the Versace, she’s Godzilla with tits.”
  • “Did I hurt your feelings again? Sorry. When this is over, I’ll send some flowers to your inner child.”
  • “L.A. is what happens when a bunch of Lovecraftian elder gods and porn starlets spend a weekend locked up in the Chateau Marmont snorting lines of crank off Jim Morrison’s bones.”

OR these gems from The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch:

  • “I cut off his fingers to get him to talk, and when he’d confessed everything I wanted to hear, I had his fucking tongue cut out, and the stump cauterized…I called him an asshole, too,” said Locke. “He didn’t like that.”
  • “There are only three people in life you can never fool–pawnbrokers, whores, and your mother. Since your mother’s dead, I’ve taken her place. Hence, I’m bullshit-proof.”
  • “I can’t wait to have words with the Gray King when this shit is all finished,” Locke whispered. “There’s a few things I want to ask him. Philosophical questions. Like, ‘How does it feel to be dangled out a window by a rope tied around your balls, motherfucker?”
  • “Nice bird, asshole!”

Recommendations for Your Potty Mouths

If characters cussing makes you laugh, or if you just want some books with dirty language in them (fictional or not), here’s a quick list of books I have that I enjoy immensely, due to the crassness of the language. Each of these has at least one character with a nasty tongue, or at least one who can sling the insults like a master.

  • Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey
  • Gentlemen Bastard series by Scott Lynch
  • Kung Fu High School by Ryan Gattis
  • Doctrine of Labyrinths by Sarah Monette
  • Joe Pitt Casebooks by Charlie Huston
  • Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown

If YOU have a book that you think should be on this list, I want to know about it! Comment below or send me a message. I may add it to the list above. Have a good fucking Friday, everybody.

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