Four Letter Words

- by Susan Lyons

Yes, that kind. Swear words, dirty words, “wash your mouth out with soap” words. That’s what I’m talking about.

Used to be, they were few and far between in commercial fiction. Now, it’s difficult to find a book, particularly one with a contemporary setting (and leaving aside Christian inspirationals) that doesn’t contain a fair number. Some readers protest what they consider to be an overly exuberant use of expletives. Others point out that in our modern world, many people cuss right, left and center, and it wouldn’t ring true if authors censored their characters. Can you imagine a big tough guy on a construction site whacking his thumb with a hammer and hollering, “Golly gee, that hurts!”?

I was thinking about this subject when I was writing my last book. My heroine is a brainiac professor who rarely uses four letter words herself. Here’s her opinion: “I’d never been fond of gratuitous cursing. I figured it was lazy, a communication habit of people who couldn’t be bothered finding the correct word.”

And yet, when the hero stops himself, out of politeness, from using a particular adjective to refer to just how sexy she is, her thought concludes with, “But right now, I thought maybe the word he’d been going to say was the exact right one.”

Seems to me, that’s what we writers always strive for. The exact right words. To my mind, those aren’t the words that are necessarily politically correct, or sanitized to appease the cuss-opposed reader, they’re the words that ring true for our characters. We writers get inside our characters’ heads; we hear their voices and transcribe them. Personally, I don’t think we should censor those voices.

What’s your opinion?

By the way, if you’d like a taste of some of my characters’ voices, hop over to my website where you’ll find excerpts from all my books:


  1. Well, in a perfect world–one where I ruled and no one ever contradicted me or violated my wishes–all emoticons would be BANNED.

    So would the word “awesome.”

    In my grandfmother’s perfect world, no one would ever use the word “mustard.” (No, I don’t know why. But she hated the word so much, despite being a consumer of mustard, that we always had to called it “The M” in her household.)

    Laura Resnick

  2. If you were to censor your characters words, I don’t think the characters would be believable.

  3. Good point Estella, I want the characters to be believable.

  4. Yes, I agree about believability. (Look at Laura’s post, for example – isn’t she believable? [g])

    It’s interesting because we’re often told that characters need to be “larger than life” and that women like alpha male heroes in books though they’d never marry them in real life. It’s quite the trick creating characters that are in some fashion larger than life, and yet believable!