So the other day N.K. Jemisin put up a terrific blog post talking about profanity in fantasy, how it reflects and relates to worldbuilding, and how she comes up with appropriate swear words for her characters. Reading it inspired me to talk a bit about the thought process behind my own use of profanity in the Shattered Sigil books – because yes, I did make a considered choice.
As anyone who’s read even the first page of The Whitefire Crossing knows, Dev has quite the foul mouth. He doesn’t use what I think of as “fake fantasy cursing,” either – no frak, frell, or other sideways euphemisms for English cursewords. He uses plain, straight-up fuck, shit, and damn, in addition to a variety of phrases referencing gods and goddesses (“Khalmet’s bony bloodsoaked hand,” “Shaikar’s innermost hell,” etc.).
This bothers the heck out of some people, who feel that words like fuck and shit are too modern, and therefore jarring in a fantasy setting. But I had my reasons:
1. I wanted a more modern feel. My world is not meant to be medieval. It’s equivalent to more of a 1800s frontier setting – except that in the presence of readily available, powerful magic, technology hasn’t developed and spread as fast as it did in our own world. Ninavel natives don’t need lightbulbs and pistols when they’ve got magelights and magical weaponry. Foreigners from countries like Sulania that lack strong natural sources of magical power do have more advanced technology than is seen in Ninavel, and use gunpowder, hackbuts, mechanical devices, etc. (Alathia is somewhere in between…the Council is leery of the dangers of technology, just as they are of magic, and controls imports with nearly as heavy a hand.)
2. Fake cursing is a personal pet peeve of mine. I hate frak, frell, and the other cutesy ways to dodge censors. If the word is supposed to mean fuck, then have the guts to use fuck. I mean, if you’re translating the characters’ real language into English, why wouldn’t you translate the curse words too?
Granted, you should first consider (as Jemisin points out) whether or not your fantasy society would use sexual references as a curse at all. In my case, I decided the answer was yes. While Ninavel is relatively egalitarian in outlook (profit matters more than anything else, including gender and sexual orientation), the original laborers who built the city were immigrants escaping far more rigid cultures where bloodlines mattered a great deal. Similarly, their concept of the afterlife does involve damnation and hells, so Dev and other streetsiders use damn and gods-damned quite freely.
3. There’s a visceral impact to “fuck” that you don’t get with a made-up word. Dev is not only lower-class in origin, he spent most of his childhood and teen years in the company of criminals, and I wanted his coarse language to make that unequivocally clear. By comparison, Cara, who was raised streetside but in a family involved in a stable, skilled profession (outriding), only curses when she’s genuinely upset. And Kiran, raised in the highest strata of Ninavel’s society, never curses at all. He never even uses a god’s name, since his master Ruslan doesn’t believe in any gods.
Like any choice, mine has consequences. Some people find Whitefire’s language offensive. Others balk at the modern idiom. That’s okay. When I read a 1-star review that says the reader put the book down on page 1 when Dev dropped his first f-bomb, I’m not upset; it’s a perfectly valid reaction, and the review serves a useful purpose: to warn off other potential readers who may have a similarly negative experience. But it’s a good illustration of a point that I think writers sometimes forget: you can make whatever stylistic choices you like in your book – but be aware that some choices will limit your potential audience. Remember, too, that the readers who detest your choice aren’t wrong. They just have different taste than you.