Not long ago my wife and I were standing in line at the movie theatre and two guys behind us were talking. After a few minutes of what I considered to be excessive profanity, I turned to them and said, “Hey, would you watch your language?” They both looked at me like I had suddenly grown a third eye. They were surprised that I had said that to them and I was surprised that they didn’t realize how offensive their conversation was. They kind of shrugged and muttered a confused apology and really didn’t talk very much after that. Then, when I got to my seat and the movie began, I realized that the dialogue in the movie was even more offensive than the conversation I had heard outside on the sidewalk. Ultimately, it spoiled what could have been an entertaining movie.
So, as a writer what should you do? You want to “keep it real” and you want your characters to sound “authentic.” But how much is too much? I think most would agree that the language in Scarface was over the top. A lot of people would also say that the language in shows like The Sopranos is offensive. It may be realistic and authentic but a lot of readers still find it distasteful. Profanity also loses its emphasis if it’s overdone. Then it just becomes, as my mother would say, bad manners. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use profanity at all. There are times when a well-placed expletive adds a lot of punch. In some cases it can also be humorous. But the effect is lost if every other word is profane and every adjective begins with F.
Some authors will tell you that for their tough guys to be convincing they have to use that kind of language. After all, a street thug who talks like a librarian isn’t very realistic. But I disagree. The language a character uses isn’t what makes him tough. What makes him tough are his actions, his attitudes, and his personality. For example, I think just about everyone would consider John Wayne to be the epitome of the “tough guy.” You’d be hard pressed to find a guy tougher than “the Duke.” But did he ever play characters who talked like Scarface? I’ll venture to say that if he had it would’ve had just the opposite effect – it would have detracted from the character rather than added to it. Is Tony Soprano tougher than Vito Corleone? Granted, he talks tougher, but is he any more believable as a tough guy? Humphrey Bogart came off as being pretty tough in The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and several other movies without uttering a single expletive other than perhaps a well-placed “damn.” And Bogart was a little guy – 5’8” and maybe 135-140 pounds. A few other notable tough guys: Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen. Okay, maybe I’m showing my age here, but the fact of the matter is all of these actors were very convincing tough guys without using a lot of profanity. In fact, most used very little compared to the dialogue we hear today in our movies and read in our books.
The bottom line is that you don’t need to use profanity to make your characters tough or real or authentic. In fact, if you don’t develop your characters properly overuse of profanity has the opposite effect – it makes them look like punks and wannabe tough guys. Actions speak louder than words. What makes your tough guys believable is what they do and what they think as well as what they say.
Use profanity sparingly and use it to provide emphasis. A pinch of salt adds flavor to food. Too much ruins it. The same is true with profanity. So, when you’re writing dialogue, watch your language.