One of the tools authors use to “flesh out” their characters is the way those characters speak. Language use and speech patterns tell a lot about a person’s background, culture, education and more. And one of the advantages of using language as a tool is that it allows the author to show rather than tell about a character. It also allows the author to reflect the times, the culture and the values that serve as the context of a story. For example, just think about the way fictional characters do or don’t use profanity.
One of the things that affect the way we use profanity is era. Certain language is a lot more acceptable now than it was in the past. And we can see that for instance in the way that Agatha Christie’s characters express anger. In 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is en route by train to visit her friend Miss Marple. When her train is passed up by another train going in the same direction she happens to glance out the window and into a window in the other train. She’s shocked to see a man strangling a woman and tries to get the conductor and later, railway authorities, to investigate. But no dead body has turned up. So no-one believes Mrs. McGillicuddy – except for Miss Marple. Here is what Mrs. McGillicuddy says when she gets a note from the police that gently suggests she saw something “less serious” than a murder:
“‘Less serious? Fiddlesticks!’ said Mrs. McGillicuddy. ‘It was murder!’”
Miss Marple agrees. At the time this novel was published (1957), “ladies” didn’t use profanity. It was more acceptable for men to do so but in print at least, even men didn’t use really obscene language. It turns out that the murder Mrs. McGillicuddy witnessed is related to an incident at Rutherford Hall, home of the Crackenthorpe family. When several members of the family are sickened by poisoned mushrooms, Inspector Craddock suspects that someone may be trying to kill the Crackenthorpes because he wants the family fortune. Here’s the local doctor’s reaction:
“‘Damn fool if he does,’ said Doctor Morris. ‘He’ll only have to pay the most stupendous taxes on the income from it.’”
In the end, and with help from her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple discovers who the dead woman was, where her body is and how her murder is related to the poisoning and to the Crackenthorpe fortune.
Today people use all sorts of profanity both in real life and in crime fiction. But era’s not the only factor that affects how much and what sort of profanity is used. Sub-genre and context do, too. For example, many cosy authors don’t use a lot of profanity – especially not really explicit profanity – in their stories. That makes sense too since the cosy audience in general doesn’t expect a lot of that kind of language. Authors such as Elizabeth Spann Craig, M.C. Beaton and Lilian Jackson Braun, whose work arguably fits rather neatly in the cosy category, rarely use any four-letter words and even then not generally the most explicit ones.
Some cosies though have what you might call a harder “edge.” Kerry Greenwood’s Corrina Chapman series is like that. In Devil’s Food, for instance, Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen investigate among other things a new kind of tea, guaranteed to promote weight loss, which seems to be poisonous. At one point they plan to go out to Café Vlad Tepes and Chapman has a new dress and boots for the occasion. Here’s how she describes the boots:
“In my high-heeled boots I was taller, almost as tall as Daniel. I liked the way the world looked from higher up. On the other hand no one designs those come-f***-me boots for stability on wet pavement.”
This series doesn’t involve streams of obscenity from every character but it is an example of the way that Greenwood puts an edge on her characters and on her series. And in other sub-genres, such as grittier police procedurals, PI series and noir crime fiction, the language can get extremely profane. That’s especially true in novels set in the present day.
Profanity in crime fiction is also affected (as it is in real life) by culture. For instance, Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano lives and works in Sicily. He uses the same sorts of profanity that other crime-fictional characters do but he also frequently curses the saints, as translator Stephen Sartarelli puts it. We also see that kind of religious-themed swearing in Donna Leon’s series featuring Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti. For instance, in Through a Glass, Darkly, Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate the murder of Giorgio Tassini, who worked as a night watchman for a glass-blowing factory. Before his death, Tassini accused his employer and other such factories of illegally dumping toxic waste. In fact, he blamed such waste for his daughter’s disabilities. Brunetti is trying to find out how much evidence there is that Tassini was right, and reads up on Tassini’s daughter’s medical records:
“For the first six months, the Tassinis brought the child to the hospital, but they failed to cooperate with the various social agencies which existed to help people in similar circumstances. When he read the phrase, ‘similar circumstances,’ Brunetti whispered ‘Gesù Bambino’ [Baby Jesus] and turned the page.”
Like Montalbano’s use of religious expletives, Brunetti’s use of a religious-themed expletive reflects his culture.
Because there are so many factors (era, sub-genre, culture, character’s personality to mention only a few) that affect whether and how much one swears, it’s hard to say just how much profanity is the right amount for a novel. I’m not entirely sure there even is a “right amount.” Like just about anything else in a crime fiction novel, it’s a matter of answering the question, “Does this serve the story?” If a character would believably use a lot of profanity given that character’s background, context and so on, then not using that kind of language would make that character less credible. On the other hand, using the foulest language one can think of just to prove that a character is angry can take away from a story too. What’s your view on this? Do you notice it when characters use a lot of foul language? If you’re a writer, how do you handle the question of the use of profanity?