Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christine: Authenticity in Characters' $*&%$ Dialogue

Today sucks.

Okay, a couple of disclaimers:

1. No, it doesn’t.
2. Even if it did, I would never say that.

But some of the characters I’ve created for my novels would. Lots of teenagers populate my novels, and teens aren’t necessarily known for the most nuanced of vocabularies.

I’ve had several conversations recently with people who think literature is among the arts contributing to the coarsening of our society. They don’t like vulgar language, or even relatively mild slang, in books—particularly those their kids may be reading.

I totally get that. I’m a mom myself, and I’m the daughter of a mother who grimaced once when I used the word “stink,” admonishing me to replace it with “smell unpleasant.” Her prim New England sensibilities are etched indelibly on my brain. And like my mother, I consider the standard not just a matter of etiquette, but of wordsmithing. Where’s the challenge in settling for language’s lowest common denominators? I’ve tried to set comparable standards for my own kids.

But do I trust that they can hear other people using salty language without following suit? Yes. And time has proved me right. They’re young adults now, and I’ve never heard them say anything that would make their grandmother blush. (Well . . . almost never.)

So how do I feel when they read dialogue coming from my characters’ lips that they could never image their mother saying?

Well . . . fine. First of all, I’m happy the distinction is clear, and second, I consider it my job to create characters who are credible, relatable and relevant. This doesn’t mean all of my characters cuss like sailors (which would be unrepresentative of and disrespectful to my readers), but it means that, by and large, they communicate differently than the middle-aged woman who created them. I think my art demands it.

When I’m writing at my best, my imagination is on cruise control. The characters have taken the wheel, and I’m just along for the ride. But if I start censoring them, the smooth path suddenly seems riddled with speed bumps. That doesn’t mean my characters have carte blanche to act or speak any way they please, but it means I have enough respect for them to be as true to them as possible. And if they are acting and speaking authentically, I think my readers respond to that, without compromising their own values in the process. Indeed, bad behavior in literature tends to cast our own values in sharp relief. It would seem condescending and inartful to give readers any less than a fully realized character, flaws and all.

Consider a scene from my young-adult novel, THEN I MET MY SISTER. The scene involves my protagonist’s frustration that her cold, controlling mother can never let herself be vulnerable, and therefore can never fully connect with her daughter. The mother’s emotional unavailability has no doubt blunted the shattering grief of losing her firstborn in a car wreck 18 years earlier, but this scene suggests the price she is paying:

Mom looks at me squarely. “You saved my life.”

A chill runs up my spine. I’ve heard this all my life, usually from other people: You gave your mother a reason to go on, they’ve said, or, I don’t think she could have made it without you. No pressure there, right?

I squeeze the blade of grass and green moisture stains my fingers. “It freaks me out a little when you say that, Mom.”

Anger flashes across Mom’s face.

“I mean, I’m glad you were happy to get pregnant again,” I clarify, trying to sound casual. “It’s just. . . .” It’s just friggin’ hard to be born with a job.

“You don’t have to explain,” Mom says, her voice steely.

“Don’t get mad, Mom,” I say. “We should be able to talk about things.”

“We’re talking,” she snaps.

I stand up abruptly and put my hands on my hips. “I hate it when you do this—shutting me out every time I try to open up to you.”

Mom turns defiantly, returning to her hands and knees, returning to her weeds.

“By all means, Summer, open up and let me know it annoys you to be told you make me happy,” she mutters to the dirt.

My stomach tightens, and my eyes shimmer with tears. God. I never cry in front of my mother. “I’m not goddamn annoyed!”

Mom turns and stares at me sharply. “Don’t curse at me, young lady.”

I open my mouth to respond, but Mom has resumed digging in the dirt, clawing her fingers into the soil, yanking up weeds and tossing them aside without giving them another glance. Each weed will be purged methodically, systematically, impassively, until her garden is perfect.

And she is finished talking to me.

I think this scene demands the cold-water jolt of harsh language.

And I think my readers can handle it.


  1. If we're being honest, it's likely that your children swear when they're not around you anyway. It's not necessarily the case, but it's likely. I'm 16 and, although I don't swear so often, I swear more so away from my mom than with her (incidentally, I never swear around my mom).

    It's not a matter of being coarse, or anything. I think it's just that our generation has become desensitised to bad language in a way, and words like "fuck", "goddamn", etc. simply become emphasising words as opposed to naughty words never-to-be-said.

    Sure, we recognise them as words frowned upon and that's why we censor ourselves around those who frown upon them, but to teens it's just not that big of a deal.

    Also, I don't think swearing necessarily entails idiocy or a lack of vocabulary. Because to us (teens), harsh language is just a form of emphasis - it doesn't mean we don't bother to learn other words that have different effects. Harsh language is just more ammo in our arsenal, so to speak.

    I think what I'm trying to say, then, is that if what you aim to do in your writing is to represent respectfully the teenagers of today, show them as indifferent* to swear words. We don't cringe in the same way as a middle-aged lady might upon hearing such words.

    * I say indifferent, but I mean this to a certain extent. Yes, it does annoy us if people's utterances are continuously peppered with swear words. Like I said, we use them for emphasis, not just for the sake of it.

  2. Well said, Blazing Snow. This has been my observation, too, as someone who works with teen writers. (You are very articulate, btw, but I imagine adults say that to you frequently.)

    I think, though, that the swearing takes on a different sensibility in a scene between a teen and parent--particularly if the swearing is an act of rebellion. I don't sense that Christine's Summer is indifferent to her word choices around her uber-controlling mother. This is why the language is appropriate to the scene.

    I really want to read this book, Christine. I was instantly gripped. Thanks for excerpting it here.


  3. Agree with Blazing Snow!

    I have a unique perspective because my stepdaughter moved in last year. While I never considered myself a "swearer" she spoke frankly that her mother swears and yells a lot. She actually asked me if we could start a swear jar that applies to both of us, mostly to help her curb the bad habits she'd picked up from her mom. She freely admits that when in the presence of her friends, the occasional f-bomb is going to drop. But a friend of mine has a daughter the same age as mine, and whenever she swears to excess, my teen is quick to say something.

    Great excerpt!

  4. Rebecca Holley FortyOctober 26, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    Christine, I agree with you that your readers can certainly handle it. As my 17 yr. old daughter constantly reminds me, it is their reality. That doesn't mean that I don't long for a gentler, more ladylike language for them, for us all. It does sadden me that the practice of social graces,of gracous manners is considered archaic by our youth. I am still glad that my daughters are shocked if their mama lets one slip every decade or so!

  5. I was as prim as a bonnet. Until I got a job teaching at a correctional facility. Within three weeks I was not only saying (not at work) but also *thinking* the f-word.

    It was environmental for me and I have tried to shuck this ugly habit on more than one occasion. Sometimes I consider it useful for emphasis.

    Mostly I look for surprising words to use as exclamations--they come from entertainment sources usually--such as "cakesniffer" from Lemony Snicket or "Poppycock!" from Australia.

  6. From what I can tell, the way to customize the appearance is to add the class prefix ".mobile " to additional style statements in order to customize the appearance in mobile browsers. Not had time to try it much yet, but will do my best over the holidays so I can write up a post.

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