To Curse or not to Curse
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
I have some stories, one especially, that contains profanity. Well, okay, all my stories contain some profanity. Do I throw it in there because I can’t help myself? Nope. Do I have the writing equivalent of Tourette’s? Not that I’m aware of. At all times, as a writer, I want believable, realistic characters. And you know what? People curse, lots of people. Almost everyone I know curse to some degree, some more than others. I knew a guy, years ago, who said the f-word almost every other word. It was just the way he talked. The only person I know who very rarely curses is my mother, but I have heard the occasional swear uttered from her mouth, never anything that would be considered the stronger curse words (you know the ones I mean).
From feedback on my stories, and looking at feedback on other author’s stories, I realize there are people who are deeply offended by profanity and even more so by any sort of violence and/or sex (what some would deem as gratuitous).
What to do? In my opinion, you can’t write for everyone. It’s impossible. No matter who you are as an author, there will always be readers out there who do not like what you write, be it because of content, quality of writing, structure, character, verbiage, and I could go on and on about the smallest details which affect a reader’s enjoyment. And you know what? That’s okay, because everyone is entitled to their opinion and have every right to voice it.
What would be nice is a constructive review. But that doesn’t always happen. Here are some examples from my short story, Hell (I’m paraphrasing for brevity and clarity, but this is the gist of it): Reads like a 12-year-old wrote the story (yeah, this didn’t make me feel good); gross (it does get graphic so I understand this story is not for everyone); disgusting (yep, sometimes; again, not for everyone); worst story ever written (Really? I laughed when I read this review); too much swearing (I get that less can be more, and that sometimes too much of one thing loses its intended effect, but these were the characters I created, and that’s the way I felt they would talk. If I wrote it again, would I change things? Maybe. I’m constantly learning so as I get more experienced as a writer, I find different ways to tell the story). Anyway, as you can see, not too constructive at all, other than I appear to have offended some people enough that they felt it required warning any others whose eyes may happen to befall the oh-my-god-who-wrote-this-crap story.
My goal is not to offend, only to entertain, but it seems inevitable at some point that someone somewhere is not going to like what you wrote (Hell was the first story I ever published). So I’m getting better at not sweating it. I really shouldn’t even look at reviews, but I can’t help myself. I need feedback to better myself as a writer, but there are just some things I will never, as the author I am and want to be, compromise on. I’ll never write a fluffy, rainbows and sunshine — flowing from the butts of the characters — story. It’s just not something that I would want to do. The villain in Hell is evil, no question, and I could not realistically portray that in any way but the extreme, not in this story. I was not intentionally going for shock, like some have commented.
Sigh! Alas, most of the harsh reviews were on Amazon, and I pulled the story from there because I was getting a majority of negative reviews. I know they warn you to develop a thick skin as an author, but, wow, people can be really mean. The flip side to that was I did get some positive comments, people who really enjoyed it. So, for those people, I left it up on Smashwords. Before I pulled it down from Amazon, I put a disclaimer up, warning that the story contains strong sexual content and language. But that didn’t stop the curious so the negative comments kept coming in, and off it went.
Here’s a review, from another short story, Over the Bridge (still on Amazon; this one didn’t require as much thick skin, which I didn’t have enough of for Hell). A reader actually commented that they didn’t know it was a short story, and they said, and I quote, “Very deceiving”. Now this one got my attention and I made a note on Amazon telling any potential reader that the story is a short one. The kicker is that the story is free. Baffles my mind.
And the best of all is when someone trashes your story, and you as a person, and then also mentions they didn’t read the whole thing. Say what now? Didn’t read the whole story? Now, come on, that’s not even fair. More than one person commented on Hell that they could not, and did not want to, finish it. Had these readers completed it, they would have realized what the villain was, which, in my mind, justifies everything that came before. But because some readers were so shocked and disgusted by the things that were said between the two main characters, they balked at it and then wanted lobotomies to forget they had ever heard of me or my wicked and offensive story. Again, that’s completely anybody’s choice (balking … not a lobotomy … oh, the humanity), and I’m not questioning that. But, if you don’t read the whole story, I feel tearing the author a new one (use your imagination) is unfair as some of the comments will totally be out of context as the reader doesn’t have the whole picture. They assumed Hell to be the ramblings of a desensitized, disturbed teenager. Nope, just me (I haven’t been a teenager for a long time). And other than a small case of OCD … I have a thing with water. Not scared of water, but a heightened awareness (yeah, that’s what I’ll call it) of something leaking, like a toilet, or a washing machine, so I’ll just say that I check things a lot. I could never be a plumber. Anyway, other than my case of OCD, I don’t consider myself troubled, and definitely not disturbed, and neither does my wife. Does she think I’m weird? No question. But, and I know this is a whole other topic, I am not the characters in my stories. Maybe a trait here and there, but I am nothing like either of the main characters in Hell. It’s just a story. Look at the stories that Stephen King has written. If you’ve never seen the guy in an interview, he’s very well spoken, funny, intelligent, and an interesting person to listen to. But, I digress (just had to add that little sidebar … a topic for another day).
I’m not writing this to complain, nor justify, but only to declare you cannot write for “everyone”. Even the Harry Potter novels, which — even though there’s no cursing — I adore by the way, are disliked by many people. Personally, this is a series of books I can read over and over again. Not everyone feels the same way. I saw a documentary about a religious group that thinks of these books as evil and, dare I say, satanic, which I think is absolutely ridiculous.
I guess it really all comes down to life experiences, and everyone’s is different. Each one of us have different beliefs and opinions, and that’s cool. To each their own. It’s when people push their beliefs on others that I have a problem, but that’s a whole different discussion (relax, I won’t stray again).
So, with all that said, my experience has been one of loving science fiction, fantasy, horror, and action, through movies and books, since I can remember. My writing tends to contain cursing, violence, suggestive scenes and dialogue, but not only this, and not for the sake of it. I do not throw cursing in just because I can, nor violence, nor anything else. Everything I use to tell a story, as best I can, stems from character and situation.
Contrary to what some think of an author’s work (even the short ones) — like they wrote it in fifteen minutes — writing is a time consuming and solitary endeavour for those of us that give a crap. And I think most of us do (just a hunch). I do. I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but I write because I love writing stories. And I will continue to write what I want, and how I feel it best serves the story and characters, because you can’t please everyone. That’s a mission impossible that even Ethan Hunt could not succeed in.