The unsolvable problem: swearing in a secondary world

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Sometimes, urban fantasy has it easy: writers can cheerfully adopt slang and swearing from the real-world, and it neither jolts the reader out of the story nor loses its literary oompf. Life is tougher for fantasy authors writing about secondary worlds, since the whole point of a secondary world is that you have to develop cultural settings from scratch… and aforementioned cultural settings inevitably include the question of what to do about profanity. Note that I’m not talking about censoring (that’s a whole other can of unsavoury worms), but rather how to best to incorporate it into the story.

There is, I think, no easy solution to how to deal with it. The various options are as follows, though as noted all of them have drawbacks.

(1) Use real-world profanity

This has tended to become the genre norm over the past twenty years or so: characters cheerfully run around, hurling assorted fucks at each other (or variations thereof). This has the advantage of ensuring the real-world reader feels the full force of what is being said: “‘Fuck,’ said Bob” gets the job done in terms of immediately communicating meaning (and says a bit about Bob into the bargain). But there are drawbacks: most notably, it has the potential to erode the integrity of your secondary world. I don’t mean moral integrity or any of that nonsense, but rather the idea that a culture’s profanities say a lot about a culture, so why should an alien world have the same idea of “social wrongness” as our own?

Let’s take fuck as an example. The English language works with the implicit cultural assumption that the sex act has something naughty or taboo about it, so fuck (and cunt and others) are thereby considered socially profane. The problem is that this makes sense only if your society regards sex as naughty or taboo – if you’re dealing with an invented world with a more relaxed view of sexual matters, why would they have developed fuck as a swear-word? Same with bugger, which carries with it the implicit assumption that there is something unnatural about homosexuality – fine if your invented world is hostile to people who aren’t straight, less so if you want to portray a more tolerant setting. This is really annoying for those of us who think that fantasy could do with a few more tolerant portrayals of non-straight sexuality.

It gets worse. Other mainstays of English-language profanity: damn (and variants), hell, and even bloody, have entered discourse from Christianity (yes, I know that Christianity stole terms like hell from other cultures, but you know what I mean). If your secondary world doesn’t have a Hell or Damnation, your characters are therefore referencing concepts that don’t exist from their point of view. Yes, you can invoke the translation convention to get around this (“this is the closest English-language profanity to what they’re saying”), but it still feels awkward. And I’m saying this as someone who makes copious usages of bloody (but not hell) in Wise Phuul.

This leaves shit as perhaps the most convenient go-to swear-word in fantasy. Defecating is universal, and (in contrast to sex), social views of it are generally understandable and non-controversial. The danger here is over-use, and again, I’m perhaps being a bit of a hypocrite…

(2) Use invented profanity

This has the opposite problem to (1). You can design a society’s profanities to make perfect sense to their sensibilities – thereby evoking a nice alien feel to the setting – but the flipside is that it won’t carry the same weight with the reader. “‘Fuck,’ said Bob” packs more oompf in the real world than “‘By King Billy’s beard,’ said Bob,” even if King Billy’s beard is a popular point of reference for Bob’s own culture. The other danger is that your invented swears not only carry little weight with your audience, but may actually come across as funny. If you’re writing comedy, brilliant – smeg works perfectly well in the context of Red Dwarf, but there’s few things more destructive to suspension of disbelief than being unintentionally funny.

(3) “He swore.”

The third option is resorting to telling rather than showing – mention the character swearing, but don’t actually narrate what they said. This allows the reader to decide for themselves what was said, and the level of nastiness (“His curses silenced the room” vs “He let slip a mild profanity”). The downside (there’s always a downside) is that telling is generally less vivid than showing: the reader has to take the narrator’s word for it rather than judging for themselves. It’s why Show Don’t Tell is drilled into anyone who even attempts writing, and why this route is really an unhappy compromise. Worse, you might even get readers thinking that you’re a bit prudish by writing a “clean” story, though here the sub-genre matters (if you’re writing high fantasy in ultraviolet prose, you’re more likely to get away with this than if you’re writing gritty military fantasy in plain prose).

(4) No-one swears

A bit difficult to pull off in adult fantasy these days – reader expectations have changed over the past twenty years – but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it as such. Tolkien was able to portray some pretty terrible images in his work, yet the worst profanity anyone stoops to is an Orkish “maggot” or “little filth”. Alternatively, the sort of effect Tolkien was going for – an epic/romance, where characters are remote and larger than life – might not be the sort of effect you are going for in your own work. If you want to get up close and gritty with your characters, then unless they have some personal reason for not swearing (upbringing, age, religion, etc), having a complete absence of profanity might seem odd. The prude problem of (3) also returns in spades.

Really, it’s pick your poison.

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One thought on “The unsolvable problem: swearing in a secondary world

  1. very perceptive. I never checked but I once read the Tolkien avoided “Goodbye” for similar reasons (God be with you) and used Farewell or other departing greetings instead.
    (3) is very common in only slightly older literature when prudishness in language ruled supreme; if the narrative is otherwise good, I do not see a general problem there but it would probably sound far more like an exception today in a less obvisouly (or differently) prudish world
    (2) can be used intentionally funny and this was also done in the past for reasons of prudishness/censorship; I am pretty sure that the elaborate curses of Captain Haddock are an example. If a world contains some background (religion, many religions have devils or netherworlds) made up curses can probably done well.

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