Storytelling details: custom swearwords

Today, I’m delving into a topic that may be quite unusual: swear words in writing. Specifically, when writers have characters use swears specific to the story. I’ll aim for both a general approach and my personal opinion.

Pros and cons

Unless a story is clearly aimed at a younger (thinking younger than 12 or 15) audience, there’s a chance that the characters will use bad words. That, on its own, isn’t a bad thing – excessive swearing is (though, what defines “excessive”, isn’t as simple either). The point is that swearwords change over time, and they’re affected by culture, whether real or fictional. This may lead to situations that will tip-off readers with attention to detail. The deeper an author goes with immersion and worldbuilding, the higher expectations are put on all aspects of their storytelling, including these details.

Custom swearwords – whether they’re existing harmless words in a new context or entirely custom words – have their purpose. They can show a minor detail about a fictional culture if it’s clear why are those words used as profanities (if they’re normal words). Likewise, some words normally used that way won’t make sense in a fictional setting – such as a fictional world with no gods would make little sense for people to run around yelling “Oh my god”.

Furthermore, especially for people aiming to be traditionally published, writing a clean story – even with this workaround – may end up an advantage. A higher age rating reduces customer reach. However, at this time, I wonder if teen readers (which is the only category where this approach makes sense) are sensitive to swear words. Their parents maybe, though, so that’s an aspect anyway.

The disadvantage is that it may, in some cases, be another detail the readers won’t give much attention to. Especially if it’s a standalone book where such details don’t get as much attention. Likewise, if the book breaks the “clean” rating in other aspects, avoiding swearing may be a waste of effort. And in a book with a lot of custom words, it can get overwhelming to some.

A trap for writers

As I said before, swearing can turn into a trap for writers. It may seem a small thing but the wrong approach to swearing can lead to inconsistencies (such as the OMG example above). I’ve been questioned on this matter myself when drafting Eternal Defenders when a character uses “what the hell?”. And the question was a completely valid point – in a world where hell doesn’t exist or the characters don’t have myths portraying it, the word itself would have no sense.

Likewise, being too modern with profanities can cause trouble in a historical setting, and even in some kinds of fantasy. Sci-Fi would probably favor a bit “techier” approach. Likewise, a world with racial conflicts may give space to story-specific racial slurs.

New words

As for new words, there can be two ways. One is indirect and tied to fictional mythology (such as using a fictional character as a source). The direct way is to invent a completely new word. Here, I’m short on examples, the only one coming to me is something like “Barzúl” from Paolini’s Inheritance series.

New meanings

As for giving common words new meaning as profanities, the trick is to make it understandable for the reader – pretty much just from context – why they’re used as such. Another point is to make sure that such use doesn’t disrupt sentence flow. Another thing to keep in mind for those with high aspirations – this approach may make it quite difficult to translate to languages with a very different sentence structure.

Here, I can recall two examples: one is Daniel M. Ford‘s Paladin trilogy [Goodreads].

“You try and change the whole world, m’lord, the whole world’s gonna line up t’ask ya who the Cold y’think y’are.”

In this series, cold-themed words are used as swear words. There’s a direct mention of why it is somewhere in the trilogy, but the point is that one part of the world is, well, unpleasingly cold, to the point the people use it as profanities. In this case, the author made the distinction to capitalize the words if they’re used this way – which definitely helps, though I don’t think it was exactly necessary.

The second example is quite fresh, from a series I started to read in May: Eileen Mueller‘s Riders of Fire series [Goodreads]. In a dragon rider story, the words used for profanities are dragon-themed. Specifically, egg-themed. Examples include “oh, [dragon egg] shards” and “by the egg”. Given the setting, it’s easily understandable and makes sense, though there’s a bit deeper backstory for that which is explained at some point in the series (the second or third book, I think).

Closing thoughts

As with everything, there are advantages to both approaches and story-specific aspects that put one or another option at an advantage. The hard part for a writer is to make sure that there aren’t inconsistencies.

As a personal example, I’ve mentioned using “hell” in my story – and I’ve, eventually, given it a background (though I don’t know if it’s mentioned in book one or two). Another personal example is “by the Eternals” given the Eternals are the closest thing to a deity (though far from a god in power level).

I’ll welcome your own experiences, both good and bad – whether as a reader or a writer.

8 thoughts on “Storytelling details: custom swearwords

  1. Stephen King does that, has custom swear words in the novels where the world is made up. I never gave it much thought before, but it’s an interesting thing to do. This is more apparent in his Dark Tower series where the characters make a lot of references to the Beam. As for saying “Oh my God” or “Oh Hell” it’s interesting to consider it from a literal standpoint. Great post as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing your example, I’m sure it can be a nice touch. As long as the writer keeps all these details straight – easy for the masters, a nasty traps for beginning authors, I guess.


  2. Such an interesting topic, Tom. As a YA writer, I do include swear words as it wouldn’t be a realistic world for teens if they weren’t included. I do try to keep them limited for impact, though. If every second chapter has a swear word, eventually the reader glosses over it. If the book only has one or two at an appropriate time, it has much more of an intention and impact behind it. It’s a tricky balance to get right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, good point I’ve seen for myself in a story – where swearwords were so overused that I was immune to them by 10% of the book. That said, there are moments and character for which it makes sense, the point is to not break (or dull) immersion with overused swearing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Tomas, your post hit my brain at a perfect time! I’m currently listening to linguist John McWhorter’s brilliant book “Nine Nasty Words”, exploring the etymology of popular English expletives. It demonstrates how much curse words reveal about the society using them. As such, they can be a key element in fiction-craft. Personal example: in one of my books, fifth-generation lunar colonists favor the space-flavored profanity “Goddard damn it”, illustrating that although human ideas of sanctity changed, our need for expletives didn’t!

    Liked by 1 person

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