Here it is. The blankety-blank post on potty mouth. I’ve written several versions of this post, and they all cycled back to dialogue and character credibility.
I get hammered occasionally by beta readers and casual readers alike for having a 13-year-old coming out of anesthesia and asking her gramma if “thah muherfuher” is gone. She is angry at the doctors, for good reason. Her gran was a Rosie the Riveter and her big brother is a super jock. They swear in front of her all the time. Her mother and father try (like mine did) not to swear, at least in front of the kids. When mine stopped trying I was surprised that my mother had a better grasp of profanity without reaching for it than most stevedores or wisecracking pimps or East Coast gangsters. My father could say son of a bitch with a wider variety of inflections than Sherwin Williams has color swatches.
I recently read a 1978 Elmore Leonard. “The Switch”. Wherein a 14-year-old male wannabe tennis star says “bullshit,” among other things, to his confused mother who is trying to stick to the straight and narrow country club life and wants to swear back at him but can’t find it in herself to do it. I love her character, though. Waking up in the Stepford thing and not liking it, not knowing what to do.
Here it is, 2019, I was writing about the 70s. I was there. And people go “Oh my!” about a purported “good girl” swearing. Huh? I’m sure there are lots of people who have led sheltered lives or have a dense moral code of some kind or find an air of superiority that allows them to be easily offended by how “the other half” talk, but I have a news flash – No pimp or drug dealer or angry salesman or most any member of any gender in any number of vocations says “Oh, drat. I am certain Jesus will punish you in His own way for (insert dastardly deed here). I only regret I have but one (wallet, bank drawer or other cheek/valuable) to offer you.”
In good conscience I can say there might be characters somewhere who would say that. But having been around for (a very long time) I would say that person is few and far between. I read somewhere that the magic of Elmore Leonard’s realistic dialogue is all in knowing how and when to use “motherfucker”. I have had multi Grammy winning artists (artists, not pop stars) say to me in conversation “…but that motherfucker? That’s the shit.” Would they say that on stage in front of the President, on national television? Probably not. In conversation, shooting hoops with the Prez. More than likely.
Know this – I am not a fan of gratuitous profanity. Even an angry character can get over the top if you write too much “fuck you, you fuckin’ piece of fuckin’ shit motherfucker.” Even for Tony Soprano. Or when it just doesn’t work. I watched Gone Baby Gone a couple of months ago. Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan are completely unconvincing when they try to get ghetto with the bad guys or even between themselves. You can tell “motherfucker” and all of its nuances are lost on Affleck when he tries to deliver it. In cases like that, not everybody needs to swear. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it’s too much or out of place/character punt it.
I recently posted something written after a character had been through an angry scene. That attitude spilled over into what I had written that came after the anger episode and I hadn’t shifted gears for the character. I posted it, read it and immediately hit edit. He was mad earlier, okay. He got over it, no need for him to sit on the beach with someone who hadn’t pissed him off going all fuck this and fuck that and here a fuck, there a fuck everywhere a fuck fuck. Right? Scene and characters require tone, and language imparts both character and tone. Stylistically, as a person who attempts to write, I don’t want to tell you who my characters are, I want them to tell you. Sometimes they have to cuss, but not always.
Lets go back to the 13-year-old girl and “muherfuher”. She’s coming out of anesthesia. She’s uninhibited, angry, confused and heartbroken by doctors that she believes have ruined a certain part of her life. She has an ex Rosie the Riveter grandmother she adores and a 6’ 4” super jock older brother. Her ears aren’t virginal and that’s how she feels at the moment. There are other times when in her persona of class role model she starts to use “shit”, catches it on the way out and corrects herself. In one role she is the epitome of good girl. Off the clock as herself she just wants someone she can talk to, be with, be herself around. Show that person with some depth, with her closeted anger, without altering her vocabulary and it becomes my word as a writer against hers as a character. I don’t belong in there and she becomes what I say she is, not who she says she is. I stand by her usage because in that instance “muherfuher” works. She does not sit down to eat take out barbeque with her parents, as delivered by her should-be boyfriend, and say “One’a y’all motherfuckers wanna get yore thumb outta yore ass an pass the fuckin’ Tabasco?” Time and place. Knowing when and how to use motherfucker. Motherfuckers.
One of my top two favorite authors, Barbara Park, received criticism for her 5-year-old character’s grammar. One critical example – “Let your children read these `Junnie (sic) B.’ peices (sic) of work and then spend months unlearning the poor grammar it teaches.” Also – “Words fall short to describe this genre of writing — not only is the language abysmal, but as a parent of young, impressionable children, I find it rather detrimental to their psyche and behaviour (sic). For our children’s sake, do not endorse these books; rather boycott them entirely.”
Wow. Harsh. Junie B. Jones didn’t swear. She yelled sometimes, was impulsive, called things dumb and forgot her manners. And spoke her mind like who she was. Her character talked just like my 4-and-6-year-old grandkids. Park’s (paraphrased) response to her criticism was she wrote kid dialogue for kids, appropriate for the character. She wasn’t trying to teach grammar and the people who missed that argument weren’t worth the time. Mark Twain said the same thing a hundred or so years earlier. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Hammett and Leonard all say the same thing. Before she died Park had over 60 million books in print. And her Junie B. books, to me, are a graduate course in flash fiction. How to boil a story down to all it needs, and how a character can tell you who she is. Readers like it, screw the squares.
Now, a flash course in character from a master –
I was at a Santa Barbara writers’ conference a couple of weekends ago, and I listened to the students, reading. And they all use adverbs, ‘She sat up abruptly.’ And I tried to explain that those words belong to the author, the writer, and when you hear that word there’s just that little moment where you’re pulled out of the seat. Especially by that sound, that soft L-Y sound. Lee. So often it doesn’t fit with what’s goin’ on, y’know. I mean, if a person sits up in bed, they sit up in bed. You don’t have to tell how they sit up in bed. Especially with what’s goin’ on. In this instance, she sat up in bed ‘cause she hears a pickup truck rumbling by outside very slowly and she knows who it is. So you know how she sat up in bed. And in her mind she’s saying, ‘It’s that fuckin’ pickup truck’. She knows it is. And then there’s another, say, half a page or so of inside the character’s head and the phone rings. She gets out of bed and feels her way over and almost knocks a lamp down. And she passes this stack of self-help books, on the desk, and picks up the phone. And I suggested to the young woman who wrote this, ‘Save the fuckin’ pickup, drop the fuckin’ adverb, and put it with the self-help books and it’ll say a lot more about your character.’ See, it’s little things like that. The contrast works better. – Excerpt from Anthony May’s 1991 interview with Elmore Leonard. The whole thing is available here
The Graphic is not just sloganeering, it’s a mantra. As such it becomes the mascot graphic for Writerly Concerns. We would all do well in our writing efforts to “Emulate” the Drumulator.