In my latest post I mentioned that I’d talk about cussing a bit in relation to world building. Yes, this is an actual issue, and no, I’m not just trying to have an excuse to talk about…well, colorful metaphors. When people get upset, more often than not, they’ll end up using some kind of expletive. If it’s not one of the more R-rated words, it’s likely to be something that evokes the same sound, like “darn” or “shoot” for other words that begin with the same letters. Really, swearing can be very cathartic.
You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. Maybe you don’t care about how your characters talk, preferring to use modern language for your story anyway. Maybe you don’t want them to swear at all, due to your personal moral views. Either way, it’s something to consider. There’s one school of thought that thinks modern expletives in a fantasy story are off-putting, and prefer either nothing at all, or something more suited to the culture. Another, with G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire as a prime example, doesn’t see a problem with modern obscenity. I want to talk a little about both of these and offer up a possible solution to the first.
First of all, however your characters talk is up to you. It’s your world that you’re making. If you want them to use modern language, then do it. If you don’t, then go ahead and keep reading.
As I said before, one option to avoid having your characters actually swear in modern English, but still express the same sentiments, is to replace the word in question with words like frak, frell, gorram, and smeg, from Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Firefly, and Red Dwarf. The problem you run into with this is that it can end up sounding silly to some, losing suspension of disbelief. It’s tearing us away from the world and reminding us of the word that it’s replacing. Well, except maybe Red Dwarf’s smeghead, which is supposed to be funny.
Another option is to simply use another language, like how Firefly uses Mandarin. (Granted, it’s poorly pronounced Mandarin.) Even Star Trek has done this on occasion, having Jean-Luc Picard once use the French word for…well…excrement. The problem with this is that you still have the fact that someone will read or see it and know exactly what’s being said. It works in Star Trek because Picard is French, and so he would be using that kind of language, and I’m pretty sure it got past the censors only because they didn’t know what he had just said.
When creating the way that your characters talk, remember that they are entirely in and of the world you’re making. How they talk, and how they cuss, is still defined by how they are. Jim Butcher’s series The Dresden Files is a good example of this. It takes place in modern Chicago, so modern language is still used, but not everyone is a part of the modern American mindset. An interesting example is how the vampires talk. Although they talk like regular humans most of the time, they swear with the phrase “empty night.” This not only sets them apart, but shows a bit about how they think.
Yes, how people swear shows how they think. It shows a bit of our psyche when we let go and just say what comes to mind. What’s sacred to us? What’s profane? What terrifies us? For vampires, being considered creatures of the night, it would make sense that they would swear by something regarding the night. In the same series, the Catholic paladin character Michael Carpenter uses the medieval style of swearing, referring to God’s blood or arms. Now, it’s not entirely accurate for how people would talk today, especially if they are as pious as a man who wields a sword imbued with the power of the Cross, but it still sets him apart from the rest of the cast while showing what’s important to him.
In the past, when religion was the driving force of culture, particularly the papal religion of Roman Catholic Christianity, there was no worse way to speak than to blaspheme, and so when people spoke forcefully, they would refer to the body of God. At the time, it was called “oathing” as they were literally swearing oaths, and the offensive nature of the language came from the perceived blasphemy of swearing by the name of God. In a secular society, religious swears don’t really hold as much shock value, and so our society uses more sexually oriented swears. Really, expletives provide a cathartic release for those who use them because of the shock value that they generate.
What I would recommend, when deciding how your fantasy or science fiction culture is going to talk, decide on what is important to them. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy involves a world with a godlike emperor called the Lord Ruler, and so, understandably, the phrase “Lord Ruler” is used as an expletive. What you could do is take something important to your culture and turn that into an expletive. For example, an elven society might swear by the forest, or perhaps by the Moon, as they are often connected with the moon and stars. It’s all about what matters to them.
Another possibility is to go the route of making of foreign words for your characters to swear in. Star Wars and Star Trek both do it. One of the most common expletives in Star Trek is the Klingon word petaQ. (And yes, the capital Q does indicate the pronunciation.) It’s pretty clear from usage that it’s referring to excrement, but it still gives a sense of the cultural flavor of Klingons without stepping too far out of the world of Star Trek with a modern word.
Now, you could just skip this entire issue altogether and just not have anyone swear, curse, or use obscenities, or you could just have them talk as if they’re from modern wherever-in-the-world you are. At any rate, it’s up to you. If there are any questions, or suggestions of things I’ve missed, let me know in the comments.