Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writing Fictional Curses

By Chihuahua Zero, @chihuahuazero

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'm delighted to have one of the blog's own, Chihuahua Zero, join us today to share some tips on how to swear without swearing. 

Chihuahua is a teenage writer who is yet to be published, but has the ability to spot good writing advice (and challenge bad tips). You can find Chihuahua blogging 3-4 times a week at The YA's Dogtown, and on Saturday over at YA Indie. You can follow him at @chihuahuazero and his Google+ page.

Take it away, Chihuahua...

Fictional curses, in some cases, are one of those elements that don't grate on me enough to be a full-on reader's peeve, but it's noticeable enough for me to want to say something about them.


I bet you have heard a few fictional curses over the years. One of the most famous examples is the word "frak" from Battlestar Galactica. It's the variation of one of the strongest curses in our language. It's the go-to curse word, since it's the only curse word.

If you're more of a YA reader, look no further than Across the Universe by Beth Revis, which I loved. Due to how language evolved, the inhabitants of the ship use the words "frex" (another f-book substitute), "chutz" (a more affectionate curse), and "shite".

The funny thing about the latter that it's actually a British version of one of the Seven Dirty Words, and I bet the author knew it. Sneaky, sneaky, Ms. Revis. I bet the other side of the pond is shaking their head.

Bland Yet Silly 

Yet, there are some risks that come with using fictional curse words as opposed to real curse words.

First of all, they lack the impact of real curse words. Unless you curse like a sailor all the time, you do notice if a character curses. Cursing can actually be an art form. Depending on the frequency and user, it can characterize or emphasize a situation.

For example, I never curse. And yet, you would notice if, out of nowhere, I drop a big F-Bomb right through your computer screen.

Unfortunately, fictional curse words lack this impact. Because they're fictional. Fictional curses lack the baggage of their real life counterparts.

And sometimes, fictional curse words are just plain silly. Especially if there's only one curse word, like in Battlestar Galactica. Not only is that unrealistic, considering an advanced language has a range of slurs and such, but it's hard to be dramatic with something like "Frak you!" in rapid succession.


In most cases though, you're stuck with those fictional curse words. Not everyone likes real curse words, and if you're dealing with a fantasy or sci-fi setting...

Sometimes, fictional curse words can be used magnificently.

I don't see myself writing a story with fictional curse words any time soon, but if I'm stuck in a situation where it's more feasible to use them, here what I would do:
  • Worldbuild them: All words, including curses, have their origins. What are some derogatory terms for disabilities in your setting? What about racial, sexist, and homophobic terms? Are there variations you can play with?
  • Slip them in naturally: Hey, since you have them around and no one is going to mind too much, you might as well use them frequently.
  • But hold back on the dramatic uses: You don't want to ruin a perfect scene with a potentially silly word (Smurf you!).
  • Throw in a real curse word--if you can: But if you want to aim that Precision F-Strike correctly, pull out a real-word curse, even if it's a PG-level one. That curveball can shock readers, in a good way. See the sequel of Across the Universe for a good example.


So generally, have some consideration when writing fictional curses. I haven't seen a lot of them used to the extent they could be used (unless it's Across the Universe...), so put some thought into it!

Now, if you excuse me, I'm going to refer back to Soulbound by Heather Brewer. Fak'n book is great!


  1. Thanks for this Janice and Chihuahua Zero!

    In my medieval fantasy WIP, I have my hero from a mountainous region where there is a lot of mining. I have him say things like, "Smelt it," or "Scorch it," like we would say "Dang it" or the equivalent. Other times, "By the Snowy Gods," or similar phrases as they swear by the old pagan mountain gods. My heroine is much more proper. But when she is emotional, she invokes the oaths the farmers use in her home region. When she is the most upset she will say, "Merda," which is based on the French version of the word for manure.

    This has been an interesting post, thanks!

  2. I agree. I think Anne McCaffrey's Pern books have a great example of this. Her characters use expletives that fit perfectly into the world.

  3. Nice post! And I agree on almost all points. I feel like using expletives in SF and fantasy can really add to your worldbuilding, depending on how you manage it. One really amazing example that always stuck with me was Laini Taylor's novel, Blackbringer--she used "skive" as one of her main cusswords, among many others, and it was excellent. I found myself saying "skive" sometimes because it was so well done.


  4. You're awesome, Chihuahua!

    Example of a book where fictional curses were done perfectly:

    Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi.

    I would give an example of the opposite, but I don't bad-mouth books in public. Email me if you want to know, CZ.

  5. Great points! As long as they are natural and flow with the story--and ha, yes, if they don't sound comical!--then it's all good! :)

  6. Great points. Expletives should reflect the situation and the character, and yea, they are watered down and weird if they are phony. But I disagree with frak, because it's permeated our culture, and is started to be used everywhere. In fact, at this point, it sounds just as bad to me as the original word, just another f-word.