You're a Benalish paladin uttering a surprised, sacred oath after seeing a sea of undead abominations swarming at the city gates.
You're a kithkin traveler who has just slammed the door on a canker-ridden Shadowmoor tree-witch, who sums up his xenophobic relief with an almost involuntary, one-syllable vulgarity.
What exactly do you say?
I've been thinking about cursing lately—swearing, cussin', oath-spittin' and plain old bad language. It's a delicate topic, because people's tolerance of swearing varies widely. I'm going to be as gentle as I can today, because I know that there are some sensitive readers out there (which is totally fine). Whether you're a linguistic teetotaler or a curse-flinger blasphemous enough to shock a pirate, you'll probably recognize that fantasy worlds, to feel like realistic worlds, need swearing. (Or maybe they don't. More on that later.)
The Local Language Assumption
When you read a work of speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, alternate history, whatever), you're reading it in a particular language, such as English. The characters speak their lines in English and the narrator describes what happens in English. As you imagine the action in your mind, however, it's not assumed that any of the characters actually know or use the actual Earth language of English (exceptions excepted). The story is set in a faraway world, a realm where language has evolved completely independently of English's Anglo-Germanic history. This language the characters speak is presumed to have its own cultural idiosyncrasies, its own turns of phrase and regional dialects, its own jargon and slang, and yes, its own forms of swearing. It's just natural that a language, even a fantasy language of a made-up world, would have its own texture and rough edges, just like English and every other language we encounter in our world.
Now, except for some linguaphiles who're fond of actually constructing fake languages (Tolkien, I'm looking in your direction), fantasy authors don't attempt to write any of their story in the actual language the characters are speaking. (I have no problem with conlangs, mind you; it's just that people generally only have so much time to create world detail. On the creative team we have just enough time to lovingly infuse a certain amount of detail into a plane before it's time to start thinking about the next one.) Again, there's that understood assumption that, although the story and dialogue are written in English, the characters themselves are speaking in their own language and understand each other that way. I recently watched reruns of old American TV shows while in Rome, dubbed into Italian. I know that Italians don't assume that John Wayne is Italian—it's understood that he's a cowboy in the American Old West, with his swaggering drawl translated into Italian for the convenience of the audience. Same thing with anime set in post-apocalyptic Tokyo, or novels set in post-apocalyptic Dominaria. The piece of fiction represents them as speaking English to each other for my convenience, but in my mind, in the world of that setting, I know that they're speaking their own native language. (I do prefer subtitled anime to dubbed, however. Suki desu!)
So how should we realistically represent the phenomenon of swearing in fantasy and sci-fi? Fantasy swearing, as I see it, has to stay true to the cultural texture of the setting, and yet not be so jarring that it knocks the reader out of the pleasant reverie generated by the story. The more I've thought about it, the more sticky a problem it seems to be. I've come to the conclusion that there are five options—and that each one has its own problems.
1. The Elevated Language Oath
A common approach in traditional fantasy fiction is to have characters use elevated language, and to solve swearing by adhering to that mode of speaking. Elevated language sounds archaic and dignified, and therefore has a bit of the shine of heroic history to it, which can be right for some types of fantasy. "By Jove the thundering husband of Juno," swears the character of Hector, for example, in the the Iliad. Elevated language sounds classical and old-timey, but unfortunately it can also sound highfalutin' and affected. I'm not fond of too much purple prose in Magic writing; we try hard to keep Magic's multiverse a nontraditional, cool fantasy setting with plenty of edge. Elevated language with too many "thees" and "thous" can dull that edge.
Furthermore, a lot of elevated swearing does so by taking the name of a god in vain. Many, many of our Earth curses tie to religion, which creates a problem for the representation of otherworldly swearing. Even mild swears like "jeez" or "oh my lord" or even "zounds" have their origins in specific Earth religions. So depending on how strict you're being, those terms could be inappropriate for the setting ("zounds," by the way, is short for "God's wounds," a Christian religious reference). The Magic multiverse doesn't have Earth's religions, which cuts out a surprising number of common English swears. It just wouldn't make sense for a Shadowmoor boggart to whip out a swear that derives from a real-world religion, so they're out.
Whatever religions do exist in the multiverse could be a good source for realistic cursing in Magic fiction, but even then there's the potential problem of the swear sounding too odd. "By Gaea" has a nice ring to it, but that's partly because we already know Gaea as a Greek earth goddess. "By the scales of Rammidarigaaz" might be an appropriate thing to come out of some Dominarians' mouths, but it's still pretty pretentious to some ears. Maybe the name of Yawgmoth becomes a swear word, but "Yawg off" still looks awfully weird and jarring on the page, which defeats the purpose of including a smooth, rolls-off-the-tongue-in-the-heat-of-the-moment swear in the first place. What else have we got?
2. The Made-Up Swear
Some fantasy settings go with the made-up swear word, a nonword (as far as English is concerned) that the setting grants vulgar status. Characters on TV's Battlestar Galactica use the word "frak," for example, so that the series can drop F-bombs right and left and yet still clear the network censors, and Farscape uses "frell" similarly. In Larry Niven's Ringworld books, characters use the expletive "tanj," which is an acronym for "there ain't no justice" but is used and modified just like a full-fledged swear word.
If you ask me, most of the time these stick out in dialogue too much to be a great swearing solution. Swearing happens during times of strong emotion and powerful drama; nonsense words popping up in the middle of such dramatic dialogue can break the flow of the story for the reader (or viewer). I admit that I've watched enough BSG that I don't really hear "frak" as a nonsense word anymore; when Colonel Tigh barks "Shut the frak up!" at some poor sap, I feel the power of his anger, not the goofiness of the euphemism. But that's after more than three years of dedicated viewing. A one-off Magic novel, say, may not be able to create enough of a pattern of use to have the nonsense word sound natural to the reader.
I understand the motivation for the made-up swear; some of our most powerful swear words are essentially nonsense words that have acquired vulgar import, and giving fantasy characters access to their own such terms is handy yet relatively kid-safe. But the deep problem is that the made-up swear calls unwanted attention to itself. It's a setting-specific term, which points a big, glowing, red arrow at the fact that the English (or whatever language) text you're reading is an inexact translation of the actual language spoken by the characters. It blows up the pleasant reverie created by the story, which I guarantee is the last thing the fantasy author wants. Let's see if there are better options.
3. The Real-World Cuss
Another option is to just let fly with the curse words. Put real-world swear words into the mouths of your fantasy-world characters. A real-world swear has the advantage of being powerfully unambiguous—your reader certainly knows what that character is talking about when he uses that term. Furthermore, that character's piece of dialogue gains the benefit of all the power and history the swear word possesses in our daily life.
One problem is that most real-world swears sound out-of-place in a fantasy world. Many real-world swears are common terms or slang terms that have acquired vulgar status, which may have evolved similarly in the fantasy setting, but it can be a stretch. To me it's just as odd for a Shadowmoor boggart to utter certain R-rated terms as religion-derived swears.
The other obvious problem is that actual curse words are, pretty much by definition, offensive to some people. You lose or exclude or simply anger some potential members of your audience with your potty mouth. Even if the traditional swear words don't bug you, as they don't me personally, there might be terms that really get your goat. I can find racial slurs, for example, incredibly, book-hurlingly offensive.
4. The Narrative Evasion
What if, whenever you wanted your fantasy character to swear, you dropped out of using quotation marks for a while? Attribute severe swear words to your hero using narrative description instead of dialogue (as I have, after all, throughout this article). For example:
Garruk unleashed a stampede of profanities that trampled all sensibilities within earshot.
Not bad. Your reader gets to mentally fill in whatever bad words sound sufficiently naughty to them, and Garruk doesn't have to utter some silly-sounding piece of nonsense. As a bonus, you don't have your book signings picketed by anti-obscenity groups (or fantasy-world purists!).
It's not a perfect solution, however. There are some contexts that just want a piece of dialogue rather than narration. Many comic books, for example, have almost no text outside of dialogue, and don't have the ability to "drop out to narration" to give some cute analogy about the hero's fit of profanity. And the narrative solution lacks the psychological immediacy of actually hearing what Garruk said. I want to hear what words he picked! It sounds like he said something pretty bad—so what was it? This strategy works pretty well, but the particular word choice gives the reader a deeper understanding of the character's emotions and mental state.
5. The Abstinence Approach
So what if we go the other direction? Instead of finding ways of inserting swearing into our story, what if we just, you know, swear off of it? Characters punch through a piece of nearby drywall when they're mad, or use plainer language like threats and insults—or grunts and roars—in place of cursing. It might be weird for some characters to deign to use such coarse language, anyway (could you imagine Grand Arbiter Augustin IV using a common vulgarity?).
As long as you can do this and make it seem natural, this is an okay way to go, but it can be hard. When your hard-boiled, street-educated assassin character chooses to express his feelings in nonvulgar terms, you kind of wonder what's wrong with this guy. Sometimes the situation is just right for it, and you're watering down your story by finding ways around it.
Personally, I somewhat childishly adore the occasional perfectly-timed, gut-wrenchingly vulgar swear. The costs of finding a way to do it right can be high, of course. But swearing has a power to it that makes it worthy of thinking about for your dialogue even on faraway Dominaria, Mirrodin, or Shadowmoor. There's always the potential to shock someone, but if nobody's a little bit shocked, then a swear utterance hasn't truly done its job.
I'd be very interested to hear your feedback on this issue of swearing in fantasy. But if you post on the message boards on this topic, please respect the sensitivities of others (and the Wizards boards' Code of Conduct). Don't let's bust out the vulgar examples in a public forum, okay? On the other hand, if you want to send me feedback in via the email link below, then go nuts, because I don't give a s---.
See you next week!
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Hybrid Flavor":
So this is something I've been wondering for a while, but now with hybrid being so prominent, it has really come to a point: what flavor is black's piece of the color pie? Rest are pretty obvious I feel (cream, key-lime, blueberry, and cherry), but what is black? Chocolate (or my favorite, chocolate pecan) was obviously my first guess, but that would clearly make it more strongly allied to white and green. And then what would blue-black hybrid pie taste like? Chocolate-covered fruit is one thing, but chocolate-blueberry pie? Ugh.
So with that in mind, I thought, maybe blackberries. Aside from not *actually* being black, it plays perfectly well with its allies cherry and blueberry, making their hybrids delicious with a crumble-crust. But wait, that's also bad. Since when would black want to play so nicely and naturally, even with its allied colors?
My last thought was shoofly pie, or molasses pie for non-Southerners. It has a deep, indulgent taste. It can stand being combined with berries, but not citrus. In a sense it's almost the opposite of cream pie, since it fulfills pretty much opposite roles in the kitchen (meal vs. dessert, breakfast vs. dinner, filling vs. light etc). But then I remembered that it's also called "poorman's pie"! Black would never allow itself to be identified with something at the bottom of any social, economic, or pretty much any ladder. So tell me, O Master Chef, what is black's flavor?
Hi Reece, thanks for your important question. In search of the answer, I walked down to my local pie store—and yes, I am made of awesome because I live by a pie store—appropriately enough called Shoofly Pie, despite being in Seattle and pretty far from said molasses-based pie's origins. I asked the proprietor about this issue, and after a long pause in which I was pretty sure she was considering the color values of black mana and its analogical flavo-culinary hybrid-mixing properties, she just asked me what I wanted. I told her one key lime and one pecan and got out of there with your question unanswered.
I thought you might be on the right track with something rich and indulgent like a shoofly pie, or maybe Mississippi mud pie. Gooey fudgy filling, chocolate crust—it's just pure, unadulterated black top to bottom, no thought to anything but itself. But that goes so well with the clearly white-aligned vanilla ice cream... (But then, what doesn't? I don't think vanilla compatibility can be a strike against any of the candidates, or we're not going to get anywhere.)
But eventually I came back to blackberries. I adore blackberries, and they do have a bit of sassy tartness that reflects some of black's "I just taste like this, deal with it bucko" attitude. And in the Pacific Northwest at least, the plant is a hated weed, spreading its rulership over alleys and along highways and anyplace there's a crack in the concrete, thriving on the indulgence of procrastinating gardeners. Plus the plant has extremely sharp and plentiful thorns, meaning you get the whole "of course you can have our delicious fruit—we only ask that you surrender the barest bit of your blood" kind of feel. When you walk off with your basket of blackberries in the direction of the nearest pack of Band-Aids, you get this weird feeling like the plant has gotten the better end of the deal. Yes, blackberry combines deliciously with your other fruit choices, but I tend to think that the little chewy texture of the blackberry seeds always hangs around even when combined with other berries, meaning it lurks inside the flavor without actually giving up its place in power. So Reece, I think good old blackberry is a winner for the pie-flavor of black. Thanks for your question!