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To Swear or Not to Swear: Bad Language in Thrillers

11/30/2010

It happened again not too long ago: a reader wrote in to take issue with bad language in my books. “I find the use of the four-letter expletive to be unacceptable,” he wrote — not specifying which word or even which book, but I can guess.

The reader, who was very polite and said kind things about my books, noted that I’m not alone. “Every author I read . . . has a tendency to throw the four-letter vulgarity in almost every chapter.”

Well, I’m never happy about making readers unhappy — but this topic is one I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about, and I think it’s worth discussing again.

My goal is to write a book that’s both entertaining and a fair depiction of the worlds I’m trying to portray. I’ve written before about research (and will again). I spend a lot of time in the environments I write about, trying to get the details right. One of those details is how people talk to each other.

So when a reader writes to ask, “Why do your characters use profanity?”, my first response is, “Well, why do some people use profanity?” Once the doors are closed, the language in many high-level corporate offices could come straight out of a David Mamet play. In VANISHED, I wrote about some very bad people doing some very bad things: stealing, lying, aiding and abetting murders. Without giving too much away, I’ll tell you that even worse people do worse things in BURIED SECRETS. A villain who doesn’t care about trust, honor or human life is probably not going to be too careful about his language. Therefore, both VANISHED and BURIED SECRETS include some words I wouldn’t say at a dinner party.

But I am sensitive to people’s concern, especially when readers say they don’t feel they can share my books with their kids, or certain friends. I want everyone to be able to read my books, including my own teenaged daughter and her friends. I don’t want the language in my books to distract from the story I’m trying to tell. It should all be seamless, so that you believe the environment I’ve created.
So I’ve gotten more careful about the language I use, and I pay close attention. If characters in one of my books use bad language, it’s because those people would do that in real life, and I think it’s necessary to show them as they are. On the other hand, if they wouldn’t — as Nick Heller’s most trusted colleague, Dorothy, and COMPANY MAN’s Audrey Rhimes wouldn’t — it’s important to show that, too.