Profanity in Fantasy Literature: Is it Appropriate?

This post is kind of a continuation of my Censorship post last week. Let me clear up front, I don’t support legalized censorship of fantasy literature (or any literature, for that matter). What I do support is self-censorship. Keep that in mind as you read this post.

 

The genre of fantasy reaches out across many different mediums; there are fantasy posters, fantasy-based movies, and classic fantasy novels like “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. My primary interest in the genre, here, is literature, though: we’ll leave discussion of fantasy art and movies and other mediums for another day. And that is an important point to make. There are movies, for example, which require profanity to be used. My favorite example is “Aliens” (although that’s Sci-Fi) with Sigourney Weaver. The movie would be pretty pathetic if Ripley ran around and called all the evil, acid-for-blood aliens such things as “ninnies and panty-wastes.” The movie just would not have the same impact. But I don’t think the same can be said of literature. In my opinion, a book that used profanity to the extent that the movie “Aliens” did would simply become boring. If profanity is to be used at all, I think it should be used sparingly. If every other word in the book is “f” this, or “f” that, it cheapens the emotional impact of the word and renders it virtually impotent. Your masterpiece becomes a pile of trash.

 

There are situations in normal literature (as opposed to fantasy literature) where profanity might be well-suited for one’s purposes. It could serve you well in dialogue if it is used for character development. But keep in mind, the same rule applies, here: use it sparingly. Dialogue in a novel is not necessarily going to be a verbatim recitation of what it would be in real life. A single swear word in a paragraph may be sufficient to provide the tone of the language and convey the character’s “sailor-mouth.”

 

With all the above said, there is a distinction between normal literature and fantasy literature. Normal literature is generally geared toward adults. Fantasy literature is generally geared toward adolescents and young adults. There are exceptions, of course—and many adults (I am one of them) enjoy fantasy literature throughout their lifetimes—but the primary audience of fantasy literature is a younger one. And I think it should be written with that in mind. To that end, I think the story should be relatively free of the most abrasive forms of profanity. In my own work (the vampire novel, Drasmyr—see “Publications” on the side bar, if you are interested), the strongest language I use is limited to damn and hell, which, nowadays, barely constitute swear words. Of course, as it is a fantasy world, I also allowed myself to throw in a few of my own inventions, like “By the Scythe-Bearer’s Sickle,” and so on. I know, I know—adolescents are all-too-familiar with any and all swear words I might think of, so why bother “cleaning” my writing for them? Call it a gesture towards hope. The literature we consume does affect us. If they read books with trashy language, I think the young will learn to use the language all the more. If the language of the book is clean, perhaps the dialogue of the young in real life will reflect that… to a certain degree, anyway.

 

Finally, let us return to “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. Would it be the same book if Frodo and Sam kept saying, “Oh, *&#!, the ringwraiths are after us again!” It is a magnificent piece of literature that just about gave birth to the whole fantasy genre. And yet there is virtually no swearing at all throughout the book. There is a fairy-tale-ish feel to “The Lord of the Rings” that would be ruined by crass language. It is about wonder and magic, elves and dwarves, and other fancies of childhood imagination. I guess that is my largest point: a piece of fantasy literature is something of a fairy-tale writ large. As such, there is very little place, if any, for profanity or vulgarity of any sort. At least, that is my opinion on the subject. Yours, of course, may differ.

8 thoughts on “Profanity in Fantasy Literature: Is it Appropriate?

  1. Chris G.

    As with most such things, it depends on the situation…while extensive swearing would seem rather odd in something like a Lord of the Rings context, something like the A Song of Ice and Fire series makes it seem all too appropriate–in fact, it would feel odd not to have the occasional profanity slip, gritty as that fantasy world tends to go for. The closer you get to realist, the darker and more adult a book gets, the more it becomes understandable. I would never say Ice and Fire’s geared more toward a YA audience, but I would agree with you that most fantasy is. If it’s geared toward YA, adopt more YA appropriate language…if not, see what feels right, just don’t overdo it. Just throwing it out there for the hell of it? Not really sensible.

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  2. stadlerstyle

    Great insight. That is actually a question that I’ve been having. I have grossly limited the profanity as I don’t use it myself in real life. But, I have two characters from the same city who I want to show have more of a common appeal. So every now and then they will throw in the H word or the D word. But in 340 pages worth, I think I have used a swear word a total of four times. Anyway. Thanks for the insight.

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    1. atoasttodragons

      Everything is about finding the right balance. Although I don’t shun writing or stories with vulgarity in them, I tend to prefer them without, with few exceptions… like aliens.

      Reply
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  5. kennesawt

    I can’t agree more. I write for many papers and can never use profanity. However in my book when an ex special ops, cop falls into a pit filled with decaying bodies, he says F&^* me, that is what he would say. There is much to be said for reality in writing. I do try to limit such words to one or less a chapter and did place warnings everywhere about profanity and sexual content.

    Reply
    1. atoasttodragons

      Yeah, it’s a balancing act. Profanity can be useful when it’s judiciously used. But I still think Fantasy is it’s own special subset where profanity really doesn’t belong. Also, I’m an escapist, so I don’t mind if “reality” subsides while I read, unless it gets silly like Sigourney Weaver saying, “You NINNY!”

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