To curse or not to curse in fiction

I’m a Christian. In my fiction, such as the stories written for more of a general audience rather than one that’s Christian, should I still avoid using profanity in the dialogue?

I posed this question to a teacher at Pensacola Christian College (I’ll not identify them, but they still teach at PCC). “People use those words,” I told the instructor.

I don’t,” they replied.

Granted, you won’t hear much profanity in Christian circles (or, at least, you shouldn’t), but what if you’re writing about one of these:

A military drill sergeant? (In my Army service, there were many drill sergeants who swore, including the male drill sergeants)

A criminal?

A police officer?

A construction worker?

My general rule of thumb is this: if I’m writing Christian-themed fiction, I avoid profanity except in indirect references. Such as this:

Jacob knocked on the door, nervous of what person he might encounter on visitation. He could feel the wet circles of perspiration form at the armpits of his new dress shirt.

The door opened and a man who hadn’t shaved in four days leaned out. His breath stank of not having used toothpaste or mouthwash in a few days mixed with a freshly-smoked cigarette. His eyes were bloodshot, the whites looking dark pink. “What do you want?” the man slurred, as if he’d just woken up.

“Sir, I’m Jacob Stone from First Baptist Church, and I wanted to ask you if you have ever asked Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and come into your heart.”

The man rolled his eyes and swore even before Jacob could finish. “What has Jesus ever done for me?” he asked. “Besides, doesn’t the Bible say you’ll automatically go to hell if you try to cram religion down someone’s throat?”

The man then suggested Jacob perform a certain type of sex act and slammed the door.

Now, let’s change this around and pretend Jacob is selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door and that it’s a fiction short story geared for a suspense magazine. Let’s suppose Jacob’s actually a burglar who’s using this job to scope potential victims:

Jacob knocked on the door, nervous of what person he might encounter. This day was going terribly: it was a commission-only job, and in three hours he hadn’t made any sales. Only two people had let him inside their house. He could feel the wet circles of perspiration form at the armpits of his new dress shirt.

The door opened and a man who hadn’t shaved in four days leaned out. His breath stank of not having used toothpaste or mouthwash in a few days mixed with a freshly-smoked cigarette. His eyes were bloodshot, the whites looking dark pink. “What the hell do you want?” the man slurred, as if he’d just woken up.

“Sir, I’m Jacob Stone from Kirby Vacuums, and I wanted to ask you if I could have five minutes of your time to give your carpet a free vacuum—”

“You gotta be shittin’ me,” the man replied. “I ain’t got no $600 to buy a new vacuum cleaner!”

“This one costs only 12 easy payments of “$20.99,” Jacob protested.

“Go fuck yourself,” the man said, slamming the door.

Please understand that when I write fiction, I try to make sure dialogue is done in a way that is realistic without going overboard. Some authors have their characters using the f-word for every single adjective and adverb, something I find ridiculous. I’ve read some fiction (including some best-selling novelists) where I’ve felt strongly they used so much profanity in their dialogue that their characters become unbelievable caricatures.

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The Mr. McAlister Principle: The Peril of Jumping to Conclusions

My sophomore year at Pensacola Christian College, I took a course called copy writing. The teacher was a gentleman named Stephen McAlister, who taught broadcasting classes at college and had performed in plays. He also had just completed a master’s degree in communications from the University of West Florida.

I didn’t know Mr. McAlister personally, nor had I ever had him as a teacher before. However, a roommate who was a broadcasting major had had him for a few classes. “Alan” didn’t like Mr. McAlister and told me lots of stories.

I’m sure Alan had good reasons for his opinion, but as I began the class I brought with myself my own conclusions of how Mr. McAlister would be. I’d already decided I didn’t like him and that he was a lousy teacher. Everything he did, to me, was “wrong”.

What a great attitude to have, right?

I ended up with a C+ in the class, and one that was well deserved.

I don’t say I worked hard to earn the C+, but rather I received the grade that matched the effort I put out.

It was indeed a painful learning experience, but it taught me something. No matter how many opinions you’ve heard of a person already, approach them with an open mind. Allow them the chance of proving themselves to you. Had I done that, I probably would’ve enjoyed Mr. M’s class far more and may have even earned a better grade. None of us likes people to form premature opinions about us, so it’s unfair for us to do the same to others.