Profanity in Fiction: Is realism realistic?

Culturally, I’m a fairly average Englishman in his mid-50s, middle-class background, slipped somewhat given my dedication to the arts into the lower-income bracket admittedly, but on the whole nothing out of the ordinary in terms of a cultural sub-grouping that may be expected to markedly affect my use of profanity and sway it out of the range of ordinary usage. And yet, in my writing, I can have tens of thousands of words with a character just like me – my characters are often just like me – without a single bleep.

That’s not like me at all.

So this character, who is supposed to be me-ish, isn’t very me-ish in the way that he talks; and yet somehow, were he to be, it wouldn’t work at all in a novel. It would place the character in an entirely different cultural realm. I don’t think I’m markedly foul-mouthed in real life but my dialogue, were it to be transcribed unedited into the mouth of a character in a work of fiction, would sound remarkably so.

Naturally, fiction is not reality, we know that, and we need to follow conventions. We do not follow our characters into the toilet every time they (presumably) go there, for example, and they may go on for years in our work without relieving themselves even once. Consequently – and there are other examples – we are working within ‘conventions’. ‘Realism’ in a novel today is still not reality. Were a writer to try to emulate reality then, I suggest, the novel would break with ‘realism’.

Yes, in recent generations we have loosened up on profanity in fiction, but I would suggest it is a gradual process. We can accept a profanity if a person like me drops a sledgehammer on his foot, though probably not if a person like me merely remarked upon the nuisance of needing to shop for milk, a complaint which – in real life – I would probably decorate with a few choice words.

It seems we continue to be constrained in what is acceptable in fiction when it comes to profanity. The slider may have moved in the direction of greater realism, but it has not slid all the way and reality itself would be confusing.

4 thoughts on “Profanity in Fiction: Is realism realistic?

  1. I’ve completed four manuscripts with no profanity or graphic sex. That’s some fine verisimilitude if I’m basing a character on myself. Darn it.

    In three of the manuscripts my character discusses why they don’t use profanity. I’m OK with other people using it, though I prefer to not hear it, and I’m hesitant to pay to read it. My goal is to eliminate profanity not from my vocabulary, but from me usage. There’s still room for me to grow. For me, profanity runs the scale between expressive–as in the military–to a prime impediment to knowledge and curvilinear thinking–as with our children. For the most part, profanity is prohibited in American classrooms, so I was in for a shock when it was in common use by the students in my children’s classes in Frankfurt. The teachers turned a blind eye.

    I think fiction is better off without it. If I want realism, I’ll go to work.

    • For sure my own work is way down on the profanity and graphic sex content that would be reflective of the world. I just feel a little uncomfortable – given my own preference for realism – if it’s entirely absent where suitable. Though, as the piece said, that’s still content way down on reality if it’s to remain realistic.

  2. I find exactly the opposite. I think. I mean, I don’t think I’m particularly foul-mouthed in person; I think I tend to be moreso in writing. Though there’s always the possibility I swear like a trucker and am so inured to it I don’t notice.

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