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.