Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What's with all the cursing in my Shattered Sigil books?

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. 


  1. Hi Courtney,

    I look at it this way. Your dialogue in the novel can be seen as a translation of what Dev, Kiran and company say. They really aren't speaking English at all, are they? Dev's f-bomb is a translation of profanity that we'd understand. You can go the Farscape/Firefly route, or not, but profanity is a fact of every human culture. Even imaginary ones.

    1. And continuing in the Firefly/Farscape/BSG vein, usually those made-up curse words are because you can't say certain things on TV.

      I'm all for cursing in fantasy. Strange euphemisms tend to pull me out of a story more than a character dropping a "fuck" here and there.

    2. R.S. - yes, very true; TV has to play by different rules, and I'm willing to give SF shows a pass for fake cursing. Or rather, I still roll my eyes and mutter, "Lame!", but it's meant for the censors, not the show writers. I just really hate it in print, particularly in adult SF/F novels, where it's not at all necessary.

      Paul - yes, that's exactly my view.

  2. It won't shock you to realize I could care less whether fuck is used on the first page. :) --Betsy Dornbusch

  3. Yay, I agree 110%, especially with all aspects of #2.

    IMHO even thinking of it as "translating" to English doesn't mean the original term has to literally mean "fuck" as in intercourse. People rarely (in the USA, anyway) yell this out to mean that, after all! ;-) Translate idiomatically, not literally, for this type of word; literal translations frequently make no sense (e.g., in Venezuela kids would call each other "pendejo"--literally, a pubic hair--but idiomatically what they were saying was more like calling someone an asshole in the U.S...heh, another word you can't take literally even in English).

    So I figure, don't even worry about whether they'd cuss in the exact same way. Literal translations are always weird. I don't think, "Dev's saying 'fuck'"; I think, "He's cussing and the best equivalent is 'fuck.'" (You don't want to know what they said in Venezuela that was the equivalent....)

    I like the other things like "Khalmet's bony bloodsoaked hand" and "gods all damn it" (this comes out great in the audiobook, BTW). This kinda stuff also generally works for me.

    Sorry to ramble! I love your books and this blog post, but it reminded me of a review by someone who was a delicate flower (just didn't like "bad words," though they did really like your book otherwise!).

    1. Good point, Kendall. Though I think some would argue that coming up with different idiom is a way to deepen your worldbuilding. In my case, I did want both the visceral impact of "fuck" and the modern feel (I was actually going for a bit of an urban fantasy tone in an epic fantasy setting, with Dev's sections).

      Haha, and I treasure the review Whitefire got from someone who said they desperately wanted to put the book down because of the language, yet couldn't because the story had hooked them too deeply. I mean, what better validation of storytelling skill can an author ask for? :)

      As I was saying to someone on Facebook, in my experience most SFF readers aren't offended by cursing (though some dislike the use of modern idiom). I didn't see "offended" reactions until Whitefire Crossing was offered as a "Free Friday" book through the B&N Nook blog. The Free Friday offerings get something like 50K downloads, many of them mainstream readers. A significant minority of these folks were offended enough by the language to put the book down on the 1st page and 1-star it on B&N's site. Actually, the whole thing was quite funny - only a few hours after Whitefire went up, I got a ton of 1-star reviews complaining over language & demanding "wholesome" books for Free Fridays, and a bunch of 5-star reviewers who hadn't actually read my book who were arguing w/the 1-star reviews. B&N has since taken down most of the reviews from people who were arguing without having actually read my book (whether 1-star or 5-star), but you can still see some of the original 1-star "offended by language" ones there. (Which is fine; as I said above, it's a perfectly valid reaction.) I found the whole thing quite interesting and instructive, about different audiences having different expectations. (I had genuinely forgotten that cursing could be an issue in and of itself for mainstream audiences!)

    2. I may have overstated it; new, literally translated idioms can work (e.g., the Khalmet stuff), but sometimes just sound silly. Cultural references or even cursing...but not for cuss words. (I distinguish cursing like "damn you to hell" from cussing, i.e., so-called four-letter words.)

      Like you, I'm surprised mainstream audiences would mind "language" so much! ;-)

  4. When I read that first page and saw that swear, I took it like you were saying right up front that this book isn't going to hold back. Kind of like a blast of electric guitar at the start of a concert, so everyone knows what to expect. Plus, I instantly knew Dev was my kind of guy. :-)

    I've always thought frak was funny in that BG showed how ridiculous it is that people can say frak but not fuck. Like it's the phonetics that offend people.

    And here's a quote from Joe Pesci you might like, from a documentary about Martin Scorsese:

    I remember one time on “Raging Bull” I was cursing, and Irwin Winkler said to Marty, “You know, can we cut down on the cursing a little bit? Don’t forget, you know, the television version can’t have any of this at all.” And Marty looked worried. And I put my two cents in. I said, “Oh, I didn’t know you made movies for television.” Well, he went crazy. “He’s right! What do I care? Curse more! Curse more!”

    1. Yeah, that's exactly why that "You've got to be fucking kidding me" line is right up front. Best to start how you mean to go on, I say!

      I think the frak/fuck thing is a great example of the importance of the cultural weight lurking behind words, and how that weight is lost or changed the instant you use a different one.

      And yes, nice quote - thanks for sharing it. :)