What’s your cussing doing in my fantasy novel?


*Content warning: it is apparently impossible to write an editorial about cussing without cussing. Nothing major though.*

CussingMore than any other genre, I read high fantasy novels, and nothing is more exciting than the promise of a new epic. Lately though, there’s been a trend that’s really starting to chafe. River of Stars was the latest entry in a growing list of novels that casually used modern cussing.

As a reader, I’m not particularly bothered by strong language, however, I object to the use of anachronistic words in fantasy and right now the word “damn” is claiming the slot of number one offender. Let me try to explain where I’m coming from. When a writer invents a new world, many things become possible. Gravity can be defied, or even not exist. Entire societies can converse with their minds instead of verbally. And in these worlds that are many words and phrases the reader has to learn. If you casually mention hobbits in conversation now, pretty much everyone immediately has an image of what fantastical race you mean. We know what a lightsaber is as well as blasters, phasers, and wands. A new world requires new vocabulary, and we as readers are happy to learn it.

However, just as new words are required to understand their world, common words and phrases we use constantly have no reason to be used in that universe. Most writers understand this on a basic level. If you’re writing a novel set in a medieval style world, a character would never say, “it was like flipping a switch in my head.” There are no switches. Yet, these days characters are using cuss worlds left and right that have no reason to have evolved as part of their language. Oddly enough, worlds like “hell” and “damn” are the most noticeable since generally the fantasy world has no religious parallel to them. They become a jumble of letters without any significance.

NathanShinyAcross languages, words used for cussing or for emphasis have meaning. If your fantasy world needs someone who swears like a sailor, go for it. But don’t fall back on words that amount to gibberish to your characters. Sort through things that they would say and draw from their language. Or at least, sort through our words for something that isn’t out of place. “Bloody” actually works pretty well when folks are running around with swords. “Bloody” means “bad” in their world probably more than it does in ours what with modern medicine. But better yet, invent something. Make it a signature. Make it something catchy that your readers will start using as a secret handshake. Think of that warm, happy feeling you get when someone responds to a good thing with “shiny!” And I met one of my best friends because she dropped her laptop and yelled, “D’Arvit!” We had an instant point of connection.

So why does it matter so much to me? It’s because I want to believe in these worlds. When I’m reading a book that takes place in a different world and a completely foreign culture, I need to get caught up in the story. I need to be able to see that world, have it come to life off the page, have it supersede the real world and the list of other demands on my time. And anytime I encounter something that doesn’t belong in that world, it yanks me back into reality. If I end up putting a book down every time a character swears, something isn’t working.

And I admit that it’s hard trap not to fall into. Even Shakespeare dropped a clock striking into the middle of Julius Caesar. But I’m starting to sense that folks have stopped trying. That it has become cool (another word that doesn’t belong in a fantasy) to have knights drop the F-bomb so now everyone is doing it. But it’s not a trend I’m enjoying. So, what do you think? Am I being an English person, placing too much emphasis on linguistics? Is this fad about to blow over and not worth worrying about?


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