The answer to the question posed in the above title – Ha! I hope you are not expecting anything too profound here – is that since I don’t swear myself I really have a hard time putting swear words into my characters’ mouths. But, I’m not alone in this. If you are a connoisseur of thrillers you know that Lee Childs has very little bad language in his books. Also, I haven’t read any Clive Cussler since he started working with co-authors, but in his heyday he had almost no bad language, though I seem to recall that a few of Mr. Cussler’s earlier books were a little looser in that regards. John LeCarre too, has very little swearing in his novels, though he just did one recently about the Russian Mafia called, “Our Kind of Traitor” that was replete with bad, though presumably accurate, language.
In any case, I enjoyed writing Einstein’s Trunk without the vulgar language. It was a bit of a challenge trying to construct characters that would be taken seriously as villains when the most I would have any of them say was an emphatic, “Aw, heck”, but it was fun to try. I had to spend a little more time on the dialogue and a little more time creating the scenes, but in the end it was a challenge I enjoyed. Yohaba, too, liked to swear until Rulon asked her to knock it off. With Yohaba, I would simply refer to her ‘verbal napalm strikes’ or some such phrase to get the point across.
I’ve decided that in books and movies, writers put in bad language for two reasons. First, it’s an easy way to show that the bad guys are really bad and that the good guys are really tough and street-wise. Second, it’s a way of showing ‘realism’ or ‘grit’.
I think villainy and grit can be achieved in other ways, though, and it makes for a more satisfying read if writers try to do so. Shakespeare woke up one day and decided to write a love story – and he wrote Romeo and Juliet. No illicit sex, no swearing. Just real insight into this mystery we call ‘love’. Four hundred years later, we’re still talking about it. In the same vein, I’ve done a little studying on the psychology of combat and I can tell you without any hesitation that many of the so called ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ thrillers today are not emotionally accurate and honest in how they portray people engaged in life and death situations. To me, that’s the realism I most appreciate.
I saw a movie the other day called, “The Company Men”. In the beginning especially, there was a fair amount of bad language but it was an emotionally and intellectually honest movie. It was about people being laid off from a large corporation and the way that affected their lives. After the movie I found myself talking with great respect about the people who wrote, directed, and acted in it. And the funny thing was, the bad language didn’t add one bit to the realism and honesty that made the movie great.
In my next posting I will talk about movie and book critics and the roll I believe they should play in the world of writers, movie producers, and publishers.
Zurich, June 13, 2011