A few years ago, I found myself staring tensely at my computer screen, fingers hovering over the keyboard as I wrestled with a problem that every conservative writer must face when trying to keep fiction realistic. One of my characters was going to swear. And I did not want to write a swear word.
What do you do when your novel takes a turn for the nitty-gritty details of life? You might want to keep your story clean and family friendly, or you might simply be uncomfortable writing about those aspects of humanity. Either way, it’s a problem best confronted head on. Your readers are as human as you, and (trust me!) they will know when you’re keeping things unrealistically soft. One of my favorite writers once said that he had a problem getting a book accepted because, as an editor friend finally told him, all of the children in the book were perfectly behaved. So don’t sugar-coat it.
I’m not perfectly versed on how to deal with this problem. It’s cropped up in several different stories I’ve written, and I’ve combatted it with different ways. Sometimes, if it’s something more mild–a romantic caress or a milder swear word–I do let it slip in. And I find it surprisingly satisfying. I’m letting the characters do and say what they want, it fits with the rest of the story and I don’t have to force anything. When things want to get more extreme, I have to use the reins. Since I do not think sugar-coating it is a good option, I try to allude to it instead. This is a risky approach. It slips into the category of telling instead of showing, but it does let me out of having to write something that I am not comfortable writing. In the case I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I ended up writing the sentence, “She swore.” It was blunt, honest, but didn’t force me to write something I didn’t want to. It was also in the middle of a conversation between characters. I treated the swearing like an activity instead of like words, and I think in that case it worked pretty well. For sex scenes I tend to skip over the scene itself and then allude to it afterwards in a tamer situation.
This is an area where I am very open for discussion. Please share your thoughts on self-censorship and writing possibly controversial material in the comments section below! What approach do you think is best? How do you approach a situation that you don’t want to write about? I look forward to hearing from you.