Thursday, March 6, 2014

Characters That Cuss

Oh, snap.

Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles.


Characters that swear present rather a dilemma for Christian writers. Do we allow them First Amendment rights and let them say whatever they want? Or do we censor their profanity in order to remain family friendly and Christian? And if we compromise, where do we draw the line?

The case for censorship is intimidatingly godly and conservative. Profanity is of the world. The Bible prohibits swearing. We should think of hopeful and joyous things, be encouraging, be a light. And vile words, especially in print, are neither uplifting nor godly. 

That’s a hard to position to argue. I’m still going to argue it, and not just for the purpose of being devil’s advocate. (Yes, I just said “devil”)

Profanity is of the world, yes. So are tears, pain, and death. So are front porch swings and old wheelbarrows filled with summer rain. So is marriage. The world is what we live in. Life is beautiful and happy and delightful. And ugly and sad and painful. People speak from what is in their hearts. They tell the truth, encourage, and inspire. They lie, discourage, and use ugly words with meanings that are like a slap in the face. To exclude something from your life because it is “of the world” is to exclude a part of life. We are not of this world, it’s true. But we are in it. Breathing its air, drinking its water, eating its food. In close and unescapable contact with life on Earth.
The Bible prohibits taking the name of God in vain. The Bible also prohibits murder. It prohibits witchcraft. It prohibits unthankfulness and hating and fornication. My characters have committed all those sins. As Christians, we don’t avoid mentioning sin. We show the consequences, we make it clear that it’s wrong, but we do not exorcise it from our character’s lives.

This does not mean that I want to delve into the deepest darknesses of men and women. I don’t want to run from sin, afraid to write about it, but I don’t want to embrace it either. I don’t want to give a detailed account of fornication, or describe an ugly being in hideous detail, or use nasty swearing every three words. I don’t want to be in close contact with evil. And I don’t want people to feel violated when they read my writing.

So where’s the line? All I know is that for me, it’s somewhere between a PluggedIn review and a horror film. Somewhere between a sparkly Christmas miracle story and a Stephen King novel.

I want to write stories that show sin, but demonstrate redemption. I want characters that fall on their faces only to be picked up, showing grace. Some of them will refuse love and receive the consequences of their actions, showing justice. 

And where does this leave me with profanity? 
It depends. 
It depends on my intended audience. It depends on the particular words we’re talking about. It depends on the context and setting and character and why they’re using the word and what the scene says about them. 

I don’t have a final answer, even for myself. I used to avoid profanity in any circumstances. But then I wrote a scene where a character’s use of “hell” demonstrates everything he’s feeling at that moment. I left it there. Because that’s him. That’s what he said. He knew better, but in his rebellion, sorrow, and pain, he used the word anyway, and taking it out would sterilize the scene. In that particular place, it fits. But I can’t really explain why. 
Since then, I’ve used similar words in places where characters swear. I still avoid if I can, but if I can’t dodge it, I use the word. Because saying “heck” just doesn’t work.

And for a random fun fact, did you know that our English word “Hell” comes from the Norse word for their underworld and land of the dead: “Hel”? The fun part is that while hell is characterized by heat, thirst, and fire, the Hel of Norse legend was a land of freezing cold and ice.