Bad Words and Good Characters

bad wordsA well-read, educated man once put the question to me. “You write so nicely,” he said. “Such good stories, so clever.  First, Do No HarmThe Ragtime Kid.  You don’t use a lot of bad words, but the few that you do salt in ruin the experience for me. I really think my wife would enjoy your books, but with that language in them, I can’t recommend them to her.”

I imagined his wife, down under the covers in bed, shining a flashlight on the pages of the latest magnum opus by Larry Karp, as her husband snored beside her.

I just can’t understand why you need to use any bad language,” the man said. “Even one word.”

“Because that’s what a particular person – a character – in that situation would say right then,” I replied. “Look at it this way: when my wife and I were bringing up our kids, we told them they could use any word they wanted, as long as they knew what it meant. And now that they’re grown, they actually don’t cuss very much at all – but when they do, I sit up and listen. It’s like that with my characters. I draft my stories from the subconscious, and I’m often surprised at what comes up on the computer screen. If I go back and cut out anything a character says that rings right for the story, it’d be like cutting off that character’s arm or leg. I couldn’t expect him or her to do anything for the story from then on.”

“You could use asterisks,” the man said. “Or dashes.”

“‘Dash you?'” I said. “‘Go asterisk yourself’? Sorry, but I think that might take readers out of the story.”

He was determined to be patient with me. “In one of your books, you have a bunch of people walking down a sidewalk, using the worst language I can imagine. I walk on a lot of sidewalks, and I’ve never, ever, heard a bad word. Have you? Honestly, now.”

“Well, one day last week, I was walking along in downtown Seattle, and the air around a bunch of kids was bluer than the sky. Yes, honestly. I hear it all the time.”

He shook his head. “It must be different where you live.”

I don’t think I mentioned: this man lived in New York. I figured there wasn’t anything else to say to him.

Then there’s that baddest of all words, 6 letters, beginning with N and ending with R.  (You see the word clearly, don’t you?  Did my circumlocution really make it any less offensive?)  When I wrote a historical trilogy based in ragtime music history, I was concerned about needing to let my characters use that word.  But all the ones who did were bad guys, some of whom were KKK members, and “Let’s fix those lousy African-Americans good” didn’t sound quite right.  So I took off the restraints, and sat back and smiled when the Ku Kluxers in The Ragtime Fool got blown to smithereens by the very dynamite they’d intended to use to blow up a Black high school during an integrated program to honor a Black man.

A pleasant, gray-haired woman at a library promotional event asked about my books, their plots, settings, and characters, and seemed extremely interested. Then she said, “Do you take the name of the Lord in vain in your books?”

“Well, not personally,” I said. “But yes, some of my characters do take the name of the Lord in vain. All in all, there’s not a lot of off-color language in my books, but sometimes it just seems necessary.”

The woman’s smile became positively maternal. “Oh, I don’t mind off-color language in books,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, you can let your characters say shit and fuck all you want. I just don’t like to hear the name of the Lord taken in vain.”

I tried not to laugh, failed miserably. Fortunately, the woman didn’t seem offended. “Well, I guess a person can’t please everyone,” I said.

The woman was still smiling. “You’d be foolish to try.”