My Characters Keep Cussing!

Posted: August 1, 2011 in Writing
Tags: , , ,

As with all other aspects of fiction, they key to writing good dialogue is honesty.

Okay, Mr. King. I have been honest; I have let my characters be who they are. I have not censored them. But here’s the thing: I’m a Christian writer. I’m so new at it, I don’t really know yet if that means that I’m a Christian who writes, or if I’m actually writing Christian fiction. But I do know that my story is gonna be about Jesus, which makes things precarious when my characters start cussing. I can’t get them to stop; it’s who they are (right now, at least).

You must tell the truth if your dialogue is to have…resonance and realism…and that holds true all the way down to what folks say when they hit their thumb with the hammer. If you substitute “Oh sugar!” for “Oh shit!” because you’re thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader — your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story.

Yes, but I don’t think you totally get my dilemma here. I don’t think my story could be secular, since I’m refusing to simply talk about some benevolent spiritual force that gives us hints about nice ways to live life, but about Jesus Christ as the only Hope of the world. (I’m trying desperately not to be hokey about it, even though I concede that the previous sentence was a bit hokey, but I mean… why am I writing, if it’s not to tell people about Him?) So then, if it’s Christian fiction because I talk specifically about Jesus and not generally about some santa-god, my audience will be uncomfortable with the cussing. But censoring and sanitizing makes my characters hokey and not believable. I want to be honest, but people are going to be mad.

…if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism… Some people don’t want to hear the truth, of course, but that’s not your problem. What would be is wanting to be a writer without wanting to shoot straight.

But…

The point is to let each character speak freely, without regard to what the Legion of Decency or the Christian Ladies’ Reading Circle may approve of. To do otherwise would be cowardly as well as dishonest, and believe me, writing fiction in America…is no job for intellectual cowards.

Oh. Well. Um… thank you?

So I know what Stephen King thinks about this, but what about you? Are you a Christian writer or reader? If so, you have an opinion about cussing in books. Spill!

(Incidentally, this begs another, less important question. Do you say “cursing” or “cussing”? I think the former sounds ridiculous and strange, like someone’s trying too hard to be proper, but I guess that’s an indicator of how I grew up…)

~LG

All quotes borrowed from Stephen King’s amazing book, On Writing, pages 184-188. 

 

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Comments
  1. Hi there! I caught you from “The Church of No People” blog and liked your comment.

    As a former profuse cusser/curser (okay cusser sounds better when talking about a person because the other word sounds too much like the thing on your computer screen telling you where you are) who is now a Christian, I confess that I sometimes let a cuss word slip out as part of the many bad habits I accumulated as a practicing pagan. I always apologize for saying the word, both to my kids and, silently, to God because it doesn’t honor Him. I also sometimes can catch myself or substitute less offensive words for what I REALLY want to say (“crap” instead of the f-word). Newer Christians probably swear more than more “mature” Christians and they might not consider the words they are saying as curses and they are trying to overcome a bad habit. One of my former bosses, who was not a Christian used Jesus’ name in vain in just about every sentence without even being aware that he was saying it. He eventually stopped saying it in front of me because I would slightly wince (more like an eye tic) every time he said it. The one thing I would say is try not to let your characters use God’s name in vain. Sometimes I will use the “d” word, but won’t add God’s name to it. If you have non-Christian characters, of course, they will probably use more curse words. I am not against cursing in books or in movies as long as it doesn’t start taking over in the dialogue. Cussing, like sex and sarcasm is best in small dose. Does this help?

    BTW, I always consider the word “cussing” to be something a Texan or someone from the south would say, whereas proper English natives would curse ;-). And Stephen King, while a highly successful writer write pagan books. Andrew Klavan is a successful Christian author, who had a couple of his books made into movies. He might have some thoughts about it, too.

    May God bless your writing and lead you in all dialogue!

    • Wow! Thanks for your very detailed comment! I agree with you completely about using the Lord’s name in vain. I am not allowing them to use it, but I think they still sound authentic because I’m not censoring them in any other way. Since I wrote this post — which was actually last week, but I scheduled it to post today — I have mostly decided to just let it go. I’m writing what they say, which I strangely don’t have that much control over. It’s weird. They just talk and live out their stories, and I’m just taking notes, I guess. 🙂

      As far as Stephen King goes, I respect him because he really does know what he’s doing. He may be “just” a “popular novelist,” but he knows his stuff. His stuff is not always so uplifting, and it does not exactly draw me to God, so I read it small doses. But his “memoir of the craft,” On Writing, is absolutely amazing. I’ve read it twice, and I’m so thankful he wrote it. It’s been immensely helpful and encouraging to me as a novice writer!

      Anyway, thanks again for stopping by, and for taking the time to write such a thorough response! Blessings!

    • Oh AND… I’m quite proudly from the Lone Star State, so I guess that explains it. 🙂

  2. Joanne says:

    I think that if you have characters talking to you…giving you authentic dialogue, just go with it.
    All of your questioning and worrying and looking for answers is nothing but, a distraction from
    your writing. Just write…edit later! Just write!

    • Edit later… ha!

      Actually, I am much better about it than I was a week ago. Sounds weird, but it’s true. It became more and more impractical — as I expected it would — to read through my entire story before continuing where I left off. It is an OCD tendency, always having to start at the beginning, but it was just so time-consuming, especially since it led to editing, that I had to quit it! Aren’t you proud? Now I just read the last scene I wrote before I continue. That’s a big step for me!

      Thanks for your encouragement. 😀

  3. I started writing a novel once and the characters cussed, but I didn’t see any problem because it was real. I think you can tell a story about Jesus and it not be sanitized to the point of ridiculousness. Anyway, interesting discussion, Lainie! 🙂

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