Fictional stories reflect reality. A fantasy about elves and dragons can still be believable so long as its characters are believable. If its characters appear honest, authentic, and imperfect, we are more inclined to believe in them.
That also goes for morally unacceptable behavior. Behavior like lying, cheating, stealing and… cursing. Yes, cursing — the one vice most publicly acceptable and probably the least reprimanded. Unless one is in the presence of small children or a priest. The reason being that cursing is often seen as a sign of honesty. And honesty is part of what makes an artist great. If we are at least honest with ourselves, then the rest of the world can relate to our honesty.
Is that a true statement though?
I’m sure a majority of you are already saying, “Josh, what’s this about? Are you about to launch a full assault on swearing? That sounds naive. People swear, ya know?” So once that’s out of your system, try and level with me for a little while. I’m more than aware that people curse. I’ve done it many times. But people also murder and cheat and steal and rob and covet like I already mentioned. So why am I singling out cursing specifically?
Well here’s why: because swearing is what happens when you lose control of yourself; not when the situation around you is out of control.
I find this idea to be directly related to creative expression. An artist might be applauded for letting oneself go so that the art inside might “come out”. By breaking free of common restraints, the artist moves forward uninhibited. The sense of control is lost and all that matters is the end product — the manifestation of inner message and identity coming together. Yet as romantic as this approach may sound, it ultimately falls short of the expectation.
Writers — and artists, in general — need restraints. Without them, a first draft is all we’d ever see. Edits, rewrites, and revisions are necessary for taking a writer’s work to the next level. Unabated works of inspiration are rarely the final product.
Another example of proper restraint is found in leadership. Great leaders maintain their cool under fire. When the pressure is on, they don’t add panic, they smother it. They understand their message must be as concise as possible. For he knows if a message is fuzzy or unclear, it could jeopardize every party he is responsible for.
Imagine yourself — the creative — being responsible for giving your audience the clearest message conceivable; nobody walks away feeling slighted by what they were treated to. Their experience was maximized by your attention to detail — not your delusions of creative perfection.
Back to cursing. It should be said that I understand swearing may wind up in a final draft. Or be present in a great leader’s vernacular. I am not ignorant of that reality. However, what I am trying to make light of is its usage within a dramatic narrative — that by somehow inserting a curse word here; a curse word there, we’ve somehow heightened the degree of realism for our audience, thereby making our story appear to be more authentic. More genuine. More honest.
But as you may have guessed, I think this is an inaccurate statement. Case in point, I recently saw Godzilla: King of the Monsters in theaters (I’m a longstanding monster movie fan) and for the record, it was really good. Yet there was a moment that felt forced, even out of place. It was when the titular villain, King Ghidorah, rises up out of a cold Antarctic slumber and casts a shadow over the human characters 500 feet below. It’s an ominous scene, yet while this is happening, one of the primary characters — a soldier — looks up at the dragon and says, “You gotta be f****** kidding me”.
Now, barring this would ever happen in real life, you might say, “If I saw a 500 foot monster staring down at me, I’d probably be cursing like a sailor too.” But I’m willing to bet that 99.9% of people would turn tail and run. Survival would be on the brain, not a catchy one-liner.
Yet this is what storytellers have been trained to do. Throwing in some profanity is a quick way to make the situation appear more authentic. “Everybody would be doing this too,” it argues. And from the comfort of our seats — be it in a movie theater or with a book in our laps — we tend to agree without question.
That is the agreement we make.
But back to my point about losing control. If things are spiraling on the outside, things could be spiraling inside of us too. Does that mean we have a license to throw in as many obscenities as possible to show that? We could, but I’d posit that the real reason it’s added is because it’s easy. Just as it’s easier in real life to curse and lose one’s self in a fit of frustration, it’s just as easy to shout something profane in an attempt to shock our audience. Want to surprise your reader? Have your title character say something outlandish. Have anyone in the story do it. It’ll wake up your listener. Because that’s what cursing ultimately does — it causes us to take notice. It alerts us that things are becoming unwound. That things are unraveling and are in need of becoming ordered again (and that includes the characters themselves).
To see this tactic used so regularly, it reinforces this agreement. Profane things are happening therefore profane words must be used too. We think reality would behave this way so the writer reproduces the expectation — perhaps without even thinking twice about it. A compelling story deserves its own set of compelling curses.
As you might have guessed, I wrestle with this as a writer. If I’m to build a believable character, shouldn’t disorderly conduct and imperfection be part of the package? A story is a journey. A broken and abrasive character could become wholesome and gentle by the end. Wouldn’t that observation negate what I’m speaking to here?
As with anything, it all depends upon what we are choosing to glorify — something I explored in my last post about Game of Thrones and Christianity.
So the question becomes: is the profanity more important than the person? Or is the profanity displaying the depths of a person’s inner struggles? Granted, there are many who see no issue with cursing, swearing, and the like. So my appeal might sound like a Sunday school teacher’s desperate plea that came 10 years too late.
But as a writer, I recognize language is incredibly important. What we say is just as important as how we say it. Presentation is key. And the last thing I’d want for my platform is to substitute substance for pure sensuality. In this, I am challenged to be more creative, not another conformer. To be more under control — a scary term for creatives — and to be less out of control.
Which brings us to another point: intent. From a writer’s perspective, intent can be tricky. We may want our audience to feel a certain emotion, but we can’t control the outcome. We can’t dictate the conclusion at which our reader will arrive. The intent we have for a character may not be received in the way we hoped. For example, consider Jar Jar Binks of the Star Wars prequels. This character was to be the C-3PO of the prequel series, but ended up becoming one of the franchise’s biggest missteps.
Our intent matters. If our intent is to portray a gruff and unfiltered atmosphere, then we might use cursing to showcase that. But that all depends on the end point of the story. If our story is about cyclical suffering and debauchery, then we have revealed that our intent was to glorify the obscene — not overthrow the obscene through transformation.
The Biblical narrative is a great example of transforming the obscene. In the beginning, there is paradise. But when that paradise is lost, death follows. As does murder, incest, destruction, etc. Yet this is not the capstone of the narrative. Despite the circumstances of its characters, there is always a hope of something better on the horizon. The intent of the author is to show how things once out of control, can be brought back under control. That is the higher ethic or moral of the story, if you will. In spite of humanity’s shortcomings, we don’t have to accept these shortcomings as normative and acceptable.
As a writer, I am not charged with being a purveyor of higher ethics. Artists are scarcely held to any moral standard; at least their works aren’t (the artist himself is another question entirely). It is the readers who end up making the rules. The public decides who is worthy of influencing the culture. And who is not.
Keeping that in mind, does cursing reinforce the normalizing of poor ethics? Using this string of examples, sure. But that all depends upon the intent of the creators. Does that mean we ought to have laws that restrict language in our art? No, of course not. My call to action is about recognizing artistic expression. What does it deem as its capstone? What is the message it is trying to convey? What is getting the glory in this story?
For just as we are to write stories that reflect reality, we are aware that our stories influence reality too. So again — does that mean we live in a world devoid of cursing? No. Do we live in a world that, at times, feels chaotic and out of control? Absolutely. And that ought to challenge us — as creatives who are creating content and as consumers, the ones deciding which content to consume.