Gritty Realism or Keeping It Clean?

Today’s blog post is on the topic of tone. Specifically, the use of swearing and “rough” language in writing and its implications on tone and impact. This is something that my Fiction Writing class had a huge discussion about a little while back, and we came to the conclusion that “bad” language can be just as useful a technique as any for conveying realism or a specific tone in one’s work, though, of course, that you risk offending some readers. It seems that while many writers (and their readers) are comfortable with the use of cursing in a creative piece, there still remain many who prefer things to be kept clean. It’s a complicated world, with lots of people with lots of differing beliefs and values, and this still seems to be an area of writing that can court controversy. In this week’s blog post, I just wanted to open a discussion on this often neglected aspect of writing and present my own beliefs on the matter.

About a month (or two) ago, I received an email from one of my “fans” (as I fondly refer to the couple of thousand people who regularly play and read everything I release and send me enthusiastic but awkwardly worded emails about it) who had begun playing Legionwood 2. He’d been waiting for Legionwood 2 for months, having really enjoyed the first, and he had been so eager to jump right into it… until he found something that offended him in the game. You see, Legionwood 2 has a much darker tone than the first game, and the writing is much more mature (in terms of proficiency and tone), and this player, who was (as he claimed) under the age of 16, had been expecting a light hearted, child-friendly adventure. He’d written to me to complain about the use of the words “damn” and “bastard” in my game’s dialogue.

Stephen King drops about six F-bombs in every paragraph.

This is when I realised the importance of considering the sensibilities of those who may gain access to my work. You see, while “damn” and “bastard” do not seem to be offensive words to me, and while both Legionwood games were never aimed at children, and are adventures targetted at those in a similar age group to myself with similar tastes (as most of my writing is), the fact is that somebody who apparently considered themselves a member of my “target audience” found something offensive in my game.

This made me sit down and think about what it really means to use “offensive” language in my writing, and whether it was the right choice. Do using these obscenities fit with the tone I often try to convey? Who exactly am I writing to, who is going to read my writing, and are they the type to be offended by it?

What I came to realise is this: my preferred mode of writing is dark fiction. Much like my most prominent influence (Stephen King), I like to write stories that are filled with despair, the macabre, death and immorality. I like to play with my readers’ (and players’) minds, and I like to shock them. The key things required to make my stories work are that they effectively convey a sense of hostility or horror, and that they are immersive enough to emotionally engage with the reader.

In this sense, I have no issue with using obscenities in my writing. While I do agree that using bad language too often just for the sake of using it is juvenile and completely robs said language of its impact, I believe that using bad language moderately and for effect is a great way of conveying a rough hewn or gritty atmosphere to a piece, and also increases its realism and makes the world more believable, and hence, more immersive (because come on, surely you hear at least one person swear in every day life around you; nobody lives in a “clean” world where everybody uses civil language, because society isn’t perfect). Of course, simply throwing an F-bomb into every sentence of dialogue you write doesn’t automatically add gritty realism to your piece. Like any other type of language or writing technique, there’s a certain mastery to using bad language effectively and appropriately (as appropriately as the inappropriate can be used, anyway) to emphasise a meaning. Stephen King is a masterful writer who often uses extremely rough language in his stories – if reading such language doesn’t offend you, you’ll find it adds a lot of depth and flavour to his works.

Then, on the topic of target audiences, and whether what you’re writing may offend someone, it’s just another of those times when it’s essential for a writer to know what they’re trying to say and who they’re trying to say it to. After evaluating the tone of my work and who influences me as a writer, I came to the conclusion that my “target audience” is mainly made up of people with similar tastes to me. These people don’t mind swearing in a text; they relish the dark, the macabre and the rough, and simply want the piece they’re reading to be immersive. Of course, there are some, like the Legionwood 2 fan who sent me the angry email, who will be offended by what I write, but I’m well aware of that (now, at least) and, in the interest of writing what I want to write, I accept that. When it comes down to it, it’s about what you want to write, and the type of people you’re communicating with. There’s always a chance that somebody outside of your target audience will gain access to your work, and find that they don’t like it, but as long as a writer accepts that and tries to market their work correctly, that isn’t really an issue. Naively, I assumed that everybody playing Legionwood 2 was similar to me, with similar tastes; the embodiment of the target audience I envisioned. It didn’t occur to me that, once my work is out in the public, it’s open for consumption to the world at large, people with varying beliefs, values and attitudes.

Now, I understand that.

So, what do you like to do? Which type of tone is best for you?

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