It’s time to talk about the “F” word

Yes, I mean THAT “F” word, the one I myself never, ever say in polite company. But every so often one of my characters will utter that word, and I know what will happen as a result. I’ll get letters from offended readers, scolding me for using such profane language. “Your story was good without it! Why must you resort to filthy words?” they’ll ask.

“But — but — it’s not me saying that bad word,” I want to tell them. “It’s my characters!”

It sounds like a lame excuse, but it’s true. These characters I’ve created really do have their own minds and personalities, their own opinions and political beliefs, and there are times when they’ll say something that makes me rock back in surprise, the way I rocked back when my son, who was just five years old, came home from school one day and told me the nifty new four-letter word he’d just learned on the playground.

Yes, these darling creations of ours — whether they’re in the flesh or on the page — sometimes shock us.

It’s not to say that I, as the writer, am utterly helpless and unable to control them. I am, after all, the creator here; I’m the master of this fictional universe. With a few dozen keystrokes, I could kill off Jane Rizzoli. What I can’t do, though, is violate the rules of my own universe. I can’t suddenly transform her into someone she is not, because I won’t believe it and you won’t believe it.

If I want you to truly accept Jane as a living, breathing person, then she has to think and act and, yes, TALK the way you’d expect a Boston girl cop, raised in a blue collar neighborhood, would talk.

Which is where the “F” word comes in.

A few years ago, I was standing on a street in Boston, waiting for a cab. A few paces away were two young men, talking about a football game. The dialogue went something like this:

“Didja see that f***ing interception?” “Oh man, that was f***ing great.” “He ran it like a f***ing rocket!”

I think you get the picture. That’s what you’ll hear, standing on a street corner in Boston. Is it any surprise that Jane and her fellow cops will occasionally let slip some choice four-letter words? Try to imagine her saying instead: “Oh, fudge!” or “Darn tootin’.” It sounds fake and it IS fake. Not to mention laughable.

When I wrote the book GRAVITY, I had an even greater challenge while writing dialogue. That story was about the space program, and my characters were engineers and astronauts who have their own secret language of acronyms. How was I going to make my readers believe in those characters if their dialogue didn’t sound realistic? Should I have my astronaut say: “I’ve donned my EMU and I’m go for EVA”? Or: “I’ve put on my space-suit and I’m ready for my space walk”?

The same dilemma comes up when I write dialogue between physicians. In real life, you won’t hear a doc say to another doc: “Mrs. Jones has had a heart attack.” He’d say instead: “Mrs. Jones has had an M.I.” Which line do I choose? The one that’s realistic? Or the one that’s most easily understandable to lay readers?

With every every line I write, I’m forced to make choices. I know it must seem to non-writers that we novelists just “crank these stories out” every year, that it’s as mindless as manufacturing widgets. But I’ve spent a good hour hunched at my desk, struggling to get a single sentence just right. Often, the very sentences readers are least likely to notice — the ones that flow effortlessly past a reader’s eyes — are the very same ones I worked the hardest to perfect. The best writing doesn’t call attention to itself; instead, it sucks you in so completely you hardly notice the writing at all. You’re too busy gulping down the story, enthralled with the characters.

Even if they occasionally use the “F” word.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply