On Dropping the F-Bomb – Guest Post by Marisa de los Santos

belong-to-meMarisa de los Santos is the author of “Love Walked In,” which I haven’t read yet, and”Belong to Me” which I just reviewed (and loved!) recently.

I just used the F-word in the novel I’m writing.

If you’re thinking, “So what?” I can see your point.  In the world of contemporary fiction, the F-bomb isn’t exactly a bombshell, even if you drop it on nearly every page (which I have not, so far, done and have no immediate plans to do).

But, for me, it’s significant, particularly in light of the email I got recently in which a reader told me that she loved many things about my novel Belong to Me, but found my use of the F-word in the book disappointing and off-putting.  Actually, she said that the word made her physically ill, that it gave her, specifically, stomach pains every single time she read it.  She went on to say that she recommends my book to people, but always with the caveat that some of the language in it is “terrible,” and she ended the email by telling me, “It’s just so sad and such a waste.”

While this is the first email I’ve gotten that claims my word-choices induce gastrointestinal distress, it is not the first I’ve received bemoaning the four-letter words in my books.  I’ve even gotten a few handwritten letters, sent to me via my publisher or my agent, which had to have taken some time and effort.  I’ve told friends about these notes.  Many of them are scornful of such readers; some of them get angry on my behalf; some even suggest that I shoot off responses that employ the offending word itself.

While I appreciate the support, I have to say that, in general, I don’t react that way myself.  I say “in general” because there have been a couple of times when I did get mad, once when an e-mailer told me that she felt sorry for my kids because no good mother could ever use such bad language, and another time when someone called me “Godless” and went on at length about the lack of religion in my heart, an email I resented primarily for its presumptuousness (how could she know what’s in my heart or, for that matter, God’s?).  Even then, I didn’t write back, just pushed “Delete” with a little more zest than usual.


In general, though, the e-mails are relatively gracious (the one from the stomach pains reader was especially careful and kind), and the harshest thought I allow myself is something like, “If this offends you, how do you get through the rest of daily life?” or “You better never see a Tarantino film, girlfriend, because your head might explode.”  Because, while I don’t feel called upon to defend them, it’s just true that my books are not exactly rife with expletives.  In fact, many of the same friends who gave the above responses, began by looking bemused and saying, “Are there ‘bad words’ in your books?  I don’t think I noticed them.”

More than anything else, though, what I feel when I get those e-mails is unhappy that people are upset.  I want to tell them, “I wish you didn’t feel that way, and if there were anything I could do about it, I would, but there just really isn’t.”

The truth is that I am a goody two-shoes from way back.  It’s not that I don’t swear on occasion, but I don’t do it loudly or in public, and I wouldn’t dream of doing it simply for shock value or to make others uncomfortable, which I think is childish and silly.  I do it when I’m mad (although mostly when I’m really mad, I just sputter incoherently), or for emphasis, or to make a story funnier.  I don’t do it in front of my kids, if I can help it (and I usually can, although not always).  And while I don’t have a particular problem with the F-word and admit to finding its terse, hard, bitten-off, Anglo-Saxon quality occasionally satisfying, invariably, in spite of myself, I cringe at another, similarly monosyllabic, hard-hitting word, the one that begins with a “C”.

I am also someone who likes to please.  There is a big part of me that would love to make my readers happy, every single one of them.  But here I run into a couple of problems.  First of all, such a thing is impossible.  Second, and more importantly, there’s this:  If I think about pleasing my readers while I am writing my books, if I write out of a desire to please them, I would be doing them a grave disservice.

I have to keep my eye on the ball.  I have to choose words based on their organic rightness, on how well they serve the characters and the story I am working to tell.  In a novel, the only inappropriate language is language that doesn’t fit.  The only terrible words are the ones that make the story ring false.

For instance, in Belong to Me, there is a character named Piper.  Externally, she is crisp, blonde, cool, perfectly together and perfectly put together, a consummate suburban queen bee.  Internally, she is someone quite different and far messier.  Her best friend is dying, and Piper spends a lot of time, under her gleaming surface, seething with rage about this, spends a lot of time seething, period.  Her true self is passionate and intense, often wild with love, and often very, very mad.  Her true self swears, not just swears, but screeches expletives.  The trouble is that she doesn’t like to acknowledge this true self, and part of her growth in the book is accepting the parts of herself that she initially denies.  By the end of the book, she is swearing out loud, too, with gusto, and even if some people might not find the words pretty, they mark a kind of personal victory for her.

There was no way to write this character without using ‘bad words’, even the F-word, even the F-word as a verb.  Just as there was no way for me not to use it in the book I’m writing now.  My main character, Penelope, walks into a public restroom and finds a girl having a tonic clonic (also called “grand mal”) seizure on the floor.  Penelope is eighteen and frantic and scared and she is herself, a specific person who uses that specific word when she finds herself in that specific situation, and, if I have any hope of writing a book of worth and integrity, I have to be true to her and to no one else.  That’s just how it is.

And if, at some point she decides that only the C-word will do?  I will cringe, bite the bullet, and write it.

22 comments to On Dropping the F-Bomb – Guest Post by Marisa de los Santos

  • Thanks so much for sharing an author’s perspective on this. We in the book blogging community have done a good bit of raving about how gorgeous your use of language is, and I can’t say I noticed the “bad words” in your books, though I’m not generally disposed to do that anyway. It’s unfortunate that some readers can’t get beyond a word or two to appreciate the story and the characters and the importance of language in conveying them, but I suppose it comes with the territory.

    I’m not a big fan of the “C word” either, but I’ll keep reading regardless.
    .-= Rebecca @ The Book Lady’s Blog´s last blog ..The Sunday Salon 6.21.09 =-.

  • People need to lighten up. I’d rather a “real” character who speaks like an actual person over one who speaks like a lifeless robot.

  • Wonderful guest post. I’ve decided that no matter what words Ms. de los Santos uses, they are always perfect and appropriate!
    .-= Julie P.´s last blog ..Review: The Host =-.

  • What a thoughtful post. I am fighting the urge to include some four letter words for fun 😉
    .-= stacybuckeye´s last blog ..Great Father Quiz =-.

  • I love this post! I, as a reader, love that you’ve carefully considered the language and characters in your books. That’s a far greater service to your readers than censoring the word choice would be. I’ve had this book on my wish list for quite awhile now.
    .-= WordLily´s last blog ..The Late, Lamented Molly Marx by Sally Koslow =-.

  • Absolutely use the language that would come out of a character’s mouth. You write books for adults, and adults need to get a grip. Great guest post, and even the C word wouldn’t stop me from buying your books.
    .-= Beth F´s last blog ..Review The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein =-.

  • rebecca

    We are lucky to have a writer so dedicated to the truth of her characters and this world. And I DO know what it costs Ms. de los Santos! Great post. Do more!

  • I’ve always thought that the language of the character was dictated by who the character was and the circumstances they were in. Sometimes, “Doggone it” just doesn’t quite cut it!!

  • This was a great guest post. I’ve read Love Walked In and don’t remember it being full of curse words. I generally don’t swear, but I realize that some characters and situations in books call for the use of foul language. Can you imagine two gangsters arguing and saying, “Well, gosh darn it?”
    .-= Kathy´s last blog ..Mailbox Monday =-.

  • Ah, Marisa, I can sooo relate! I find the emails and letters from readers who are upset about the F-bomb and other bombs in my books quite painful. I want my readers to love my books, and it hurts when they don’t, no matter how thick a skin I’ve developed over the years. But when you’re writing about an angry 17-year-old boy burned in a fire, as I did in my latest, well there is no way this kid is going to say “Gosh darn it!”

    The character of Piper: What a brilliant job you did with her! You made me dislike her intensely, yet you were still able to solicit sympathy for her, and finally love and respect. I can’t wait to read your current work in progress.

  • Pam

    Thank you for such a great post, Marisa. Even as a mere reader, not a writer, I find myself rolling my eyes when I hear other readers writing off a piece of work due to its “language”. I wholeheartedly agree with your conviction to stay true to a character even if it means reverting to the F-word or, heaven forbid, the C-word. Thanks again for an open and insightful defense of honest writing.

  • What a great topic and wonderful guest post! I am so glad that you stay true to your characters and use whatever language suits the situation. As a reader I understand that and accept it. Whether I choose to use foul language in my personal life (occasionally) has nothing to do with what I expect to read in a well written story. I just want the characters to ring true and I applaud you for creating ones that do.

  • In general, I cringe a little when reading a book with the F-word, yet we do live in a time when that word is a favorite among a lot of people. No, you can’t sit and worry what the readers might like while your writing, because then it wouldn’t be YOU.

    On a bright side, it’s really cool that we live at a time when the authors we enjoy are accessable by email, twitter and blogs :-) Thanks both to you, Marisa, for taking time to share and to Jen, for sharing the space.
    .-= The Kool-Aid Mom´s last blog ..The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch =-.

  • I hardly ever cringe at language in a book. I take it within the context it was written in and go from there. The only time that the f-bomb has bothered me was in a YA book where it occurred over 23 times on one page…I found myself asking what was the need for that? I’ve read Belong to Me and Love Walked In and I can tell you that I came away from that reading experience in love with the characters, their lives, and stories. Not once do I sit around saying, “Boy she sure used the f-word a lot!”
    .-= Staci´s last blog ..Mailbox Monday and a Monday Musing =-.

  • I feel that if the character calls for it, that’s what they need to do. That’s part of the craft of writing a good story with a believable cast.

    Fun to read — thanks for sharing this!

    .-= Sassy Brit´s last blog ..MEMBER NEWS: The Dark Moon books are now available on Bookstrand and ARe! =-.

  • Great guest post. Marisa…I loved BOTH your books (and I have to say I don’t remember them being exactly full of four letter words, either!). I’m excited to see your next book…when does it get released?

    Re: being true to the characters – absolutely! Nothing turns me off a book faster than dialogue that does not fit with the character…for example a hard-bitten detective that says “darn” does not really make me believe in him! And Piper’s character ABSOLUTELY needed to become true to herself.

    So I congratulate you on your honest writing – and if a couple of readers are so offended they cannot appreciate your work, that is truly their loss!
    .-= Wendy´s last blog ..Summer Reading =-.

  • I can SO relate to this. My novel had a Vietnam vet that was NOT going to just say darn it…while I have gotten only a few emails that object to it – it does pain me when readers can’t see past this and realize that authors are not advocating the use of these words- they are used to develop or show characterization.
    A wonderful thought provoking post!
    Much aloha,
    Patricia Wood
    .-= Patricia Wood´s last blog ..YOUR BAILOUT DOLLARS AT WORK… =-.

  • I really don’t mind bad language sprinkled in or when it serves the story. I don’t like to read it on every page, but then I usually don’t read the kind of stories best told with extreme cursing!
    .-= lenore´s last blog ..Book Review, Author Interview and Giveaway: The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson =-.

  • I’ve been having a lot of really interesting conversations with my students lately about word choice and why, sometimes, you have to go a certain route – even when it is a word that makes some people uncomfortable. I think you’ve explained it much better than I have so far. Of course, we were talking about racial slurs, but I think the point is the same. Thanks!

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