Swearing In Fiction

I saw The Photograph recently. I liked it: solid story, likable characters, good acting. I recommend it. One thing about it jumped out at me. Somewhere about midway through the movie, one of the characters swore. He used the F-word followed shortly thereafter by the D-word. I can’t be sure, since I don’t have a copy of the script, but I believe those were the only two swears in the movie.

I’ve also been watching Star Trek: Picard. Honestly, I’m a die hard Star Trek fan, but it’s kind of frustrating. The acting is wonderful, but the story just isn’t there. It’s like they had a five episode story that they are trying to tell over ten episodes. But anyway, they swear often in the show. Picard hasn’t to this point, but all the other characters do. I’ve been watching Trek my whole life, and the two most recent, Picard and Discovery, are the only two iterations with swearing.

In The Photograph, the couple of curse words were jarring. I had been brought into this world where they talked a certain way, then about an hour in, they talked differently. I was sitting there thinking, “Whoa, where’d that come from?” It took me out of the movie for a couple of minutes. It would have been a better movie without those two words.

In Picard, I probably wouldn’t even notice the cursing if I hadn’t been watching Star Trek for the past forty-five years. It’s perfectly normal swearing compared to everything else on streaming platforms and in movies. But, because it’s Star Trek, it surprises me, and takes me out of the action, every time. I’m pretty sure it would be a better show without the cursing.

I read an interview with Michael Chabon, the creator/show runner of Picard. In it, he was asked about the swearing. He said that they swear on Picard because people swear in real life. People always have and they probably always will. So, swearing in Picard is a way of injecting realism into this world.

That explanation struck me as stupid. This is Star Trek we’re talking about. They have warp drive and transporters and aliens and those aliens are genetically compatible with humans. There’s nothing real about the Trek universe. Why would it be important for the characters to swear to make it more realistic? They’re not going for realism, and the audience isn’t looking for realism. Realism for the sake of realism isn’t good entertainment. Star Trek has been building a fantasy world for more than fifty years. Until now, part of that world was that people spoke without swearing. Using curse words in Picard unnecessarily changes the universe that’s been created and takes away some of its magic.

The Photograph is not science fiction. The characters are all human, the settings are New York, Louisiana, and London, and nothing happens in the movie that would be impossible in real life. But it’s important to remember that nothing in the movie is real. Despite its apparent realism, it is a world that someone built. Like all fiction, it’s a fantasy. The creator picks and chooses what goes into the world, hopefully, for a reason. The language choices are a big part of that world building. I can handle just about anything a storyteller wants to throw at me as long as it’s consistent within the world they’re building. It’s too bad that two minutes out of this movie had to be inconsistent.

When I was in college and taking writing classes, I would make characters swear in the name of realism. Curse words are a ubiquitous part of the real world. I was afraid that my dialogue wouldn’t feel natural without them. Then, I realized that no one writes natural dialogue and no one would want to read it either. If you transcribe an actual conversation between two people, there are a ton of partial sentences, dropped words, non-verbal interactions, mistakes, stutters, and mispronunciations. Tedious doesn’t begin to describe what that would be like for an audience. If dialogue has to be stylized anyway, at least I could make it into a voice that enhances the stories. I haven’t written a swear word since. In my writing, they are unnecessary.

I’m not saying that there is no place for profanity in fiction. It can be used for comedic effect like in a Kevin Smith movie. Or it can heighten the realism if the point of the piece is to depict something real, like a battle or a censorship case. But most of the time, swears are gratuitous. At best, they’re just extra words. At worst, they destroy the world that the piece is trying to create. They’re usually not fatal, I still enjoyed The Photograph and I haven’t given up on Picard. But both would be better with a little less realism.

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