Swearing in fantasy – perhaps not quite the most polarising of subjects in the genre, but usually one where people have an opinion they’re unlikely to ever change. For several reasons I went back through my books recently and did a search for how often I’d included the word “fuck” in one form or another, curious at how things might have changed for me over the years. I’d specifically been looking at how sweary my mercenaries in Stranger of Tempest were, how much it was natural and how much I needed to try and be a bit more inventive or entertaining in their cursing.
Some people think there’s no place for it in secondary world fantasy – that it should be era-appropriate or world-appropriate. Others want to hear characters speak in a way that’s familiar, following some idea of realism or authenticity. For myself, I’m a fairly sweary person, but that doesn’t mean my characters should always be.
Doing the sums, it’s clear I’m reminded that I was overly cautious about it in the early days. For Stormcaller and Twilight Herald, while things hadn’t got as desperate as they did later on in the series, Isak is an angry young man from a poor background, and nowadays I realise that (particularly in the first edition of Stormcaller) he spoke a bit too proper, as it were. The more comfortable I got in the series, the more confident Isak became in his role and the more relaxed his speech became. And the more people swore, in part because of that but also simply because there were more veteran soldiers and awful things happening.
I read The Way of Kings recently, and to someone like me it really stood out how Sanderson had avoided real-world swearing. You swap in “fuck” for every time you have “storm” used as a curse and you’ve got a reasonably sweary book, so I found it interesting that he’d avoided the word. Battlestar got around it with “frak” in a way I got used to soon enough, it didn’t distract me, but in Way of Kings it nagged more. My impression of the US is that everyone outside of NY swears a fuckton less than the average Brit and Sanderson is of course writing for the US readership (and standards of US publishing). It’s a market where I suspect many more fans will put a book down at too much swearing, but to me it jarred to so overtly avoid it. I’ll be very interested to see if my language gets mentioned in feedback from US editors as we try to find a publisher for Stranger there, whether anything would need to be toned down even.
There’s certainly a lot more naughty language in the new series. It’s about hard-drinking and somewhat childish mercenaries so there was never a way to avoid that even if I’d wanted to. Moon’s Artifice wasn’t the same sort of book so the numbers dropped there, but for these ones I’d have felt almost dishonest to pretend they weren’t foul-mouthed folk. Like sanitising violence, it can be a tricky slope towards hypocrisy. You spend too much time glorifying it, enjoying the gory detail, and you come across pathetic and sad, but if you hide it you risk cheapening your work and more besides.
Authenticity, or a perceived version of it, is important for some and I can see their point in many ways. But I’m not writing a historically accurate novel and while there are some things that need to be broadly era-appropriate for the level of technology and state of society etc, I’m writing for people who live in the same world as me. Crucially I feel, I’m writing what I hope to be fun, exciting and occasionally irreverent books. To tiptoe around such things when most people aren’t experts in the field forces me to change the style I’m working towards.
If you don’t like swearing in books then that’s an entirely different matter and hopefully from the way the book is presented, you’ll be able to see what style it is before you pay money for it. I’m not out to deceive or offend, but I write for me first and foremost.
So, for those of you who’re interested, here are the figures.
How many fucks I gave in each book:
The Stormcaller: 6
The Twilight Herald: 2
The Grave Thief: 31
The Ragged Man: 52
The Dusk Watchman: 63
The God Tattoo: 12
Moon’s Artifice: 24
Old Man’s Ghosts: 20
Stranger of Tempest: 82
Princess of Blood: 142 (first draft), 71 (second draft) 84 (third draft)
That last figure, I’d not even intended to bring the number up again. I’d gone through every mention of the word and tried to be a bit more inventive or amusing with it – some of them worked, others I realised I just needed to say “fuck” and pretending otherwise would be silly. It’s going to remain on the list of things I’ll check at the end of each draft however.
My sense of humour may be childish and crude, but sometimes I need to rein it in a bit. Indulging myself needs to be justified in every case and one day my kids may be reading this. That’ll be a fun day…