I want to demonstrate that a character is willfully crude, in part through her foul language. However, she exists in a fantasy society that has different values, and their swear words would be different than what North American English speakers see as offensive.

How can I present fantasy-culturally-relevant swearing in a way that doesn’t seem bowdlerized (‘“Starkittens!” she cursed’), too expository (‘“Starkittens!” she shouted, the most offensive curse imaginable’), or too melodramatic (‘“Starkittens!” she shouted, and the hardened cop gasped at the profanity’)?

Or should I stick with “standard” North American English swears to get the impact across to the (assumed default) reader?

Nick

Hey Nick, thanks for writing in!

This is an interesting question, and the answer depends on exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. If the most important goal is to establish that the character uses crude language, you can largely do that by describing that the character is cursing and the way other characters react. As long as this description isn’t over the top, it will do the job just fine. 

Sasha let her cards fall face up on the table, showing a winning hand against all odds. “And that’s the game, fellas,” she said. 

Then Sasha added a few choice words about the nature of her opponents’ parentage. 

Jess raised an eyebrow, Tom’s cheeks reddened, and Mia slammed her fist against the table, upsetting cards and winnings both.  

“Take that back,” Mia said, voice rising. “My father would never!” 

To establish your character’s attitude and mannerisms, this will do fine. However, if you want the character’s cursing to have the same effect on your readers that real-life swear words do, that’s much more complicated, and it takes time. Probably too much time to be up and running for a character you introduce early in the story. 

The effectiveness of real-life swears depends a lot on how grounded your setting is. If it’s more gritty and realistic, you can probably get away with most four letter words like “shit,” “crap,” “damn,” etc. In fact, “damn” is such a common one that you’ll probably use it anyway. Conversely, words like “douchebag” will probably sound too modern, unless your fantasy world also has modern aesthetics. If your world is on the more wondrous and whimsical side, or just very different from the one we know, even basic swears may feel out of place.  

The fastest way to make purely fantasy swears is by falling back on anatomical references. If humans are about the same shape in this world, readers will usually get what you mean, even if you use slightly different words. However, you’ve said that your setting has different values from real-world North America, so they might not have the same taboos. And, of course, a lot of those real life taboos are based on toxic ideals that you may not wish to emulate. Like how calling someone a “pussy” is usually worse than calling them a “dick” because of sexist biases. 

This method also limits you to mostly sexual or scatological curse words, which might not cover the spectrum of what you want. For a truly effective curse or slur, you have to make something that sounds nasty to real-life readers while also establishing its context in the setting. This takes time and effort, which is why it may not work as a way to establish how crude a specific character is. 

Unfortunately, there simply aren’t many successful examples of this method in action, at least not many that I’ve found. Wheel of Time has “blood and ashes,” which might work better for British readers, but doesn’t sound like anything to most Americans. Firefly has characters swear in Chinese, something that only works because the actors deliver the lines like they would English curses (and it could be offensive in a way you don’t want it to be). Battlestar Galactica has “frack” as a TV appropriate replacement for “fuck,” which was so unintentionally funny that it became a meme. 

I’m so hard up for good examples that I have no choice but to use something from the TERF Who Shall Not Be Named. In that story, “mudblood” is an excellent curse. It takes real words and puts them together in a way that has obvious negative connotations and is further strengthened by the context of racist wizards being obsessed with blood purity. This sort of curse isn’t established overnight, and it’s basically a racial slur, which may not be what you’re looking for either. 

Hope that gives you somewhere to start!

Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.