That Offensive Word…

The internet and ‘Faceache’ writers groups, in particular, throw up the occasional odd question. Odd to my mind at least, not odd to the person asking the question. Probably I find them odd because I have some fairly firm views rooted in British liberalism, as well as firm views on writing. Generally, I will comment, or not, as the mood takes me and time allows. Hoping to impart a little of my ‘wisdom‘ for want of another word. On occasion, I can get myself on a sticky wicket by doing so, but that’s the thing about opinions, we all have them, and if you have one you may as well use it on occasion. Also, I like writers groups and those odd questions sometimes lead to me having an expansive thought or two which may even be of value to the world in general… Besides as I have occasionally preached, involvement in the writer community is a good thing for a writer to undertake…

The latest ‘odd’ question I stumbled over was this one, which I am borrowing along with my response, which I have expanded on a little. Apologies to the questioner for stealing their question, which might have had its tongue firmly in its cheek when it was asked… It remains a bit odd, but an important one for a writer to consider all the same….

 So, the “n” word is off the table.
“Racist scumbag” is now off the table.
Will everyone please let me know what words offend them so that I can make sure that I don’t make things ugly?
Step right up — don’t be shy. If there’s a word or phrase out there that you don’t like, let me know and I’ll be sure to add it to my “List of Words and Phrases That Must Not Be Uttered By a Character.”

My answer is actually relatively simple, there is no “List of Words and Phrases That Must Not Be Uttered By a Character.” Nor should there be. I was a little more expensive in my reply. However, I have both edited ( mainly just to clean it up a tad) and expanded on it here after…

No writer should ever censor their writing in this way. If the character they are writing would use an offensive word, then use that word. Don’t get me wrong, this only applies to an internal monologue or a stream of consciousness and the characters dialogue. So where you use the word in question ‘which ever one it happens to be‘ is entirely dependant on the form your writing takes. An entirely first person narrative could use such words where ever they fall in the narration, a third person narrative, on the other hand, should only use such words where they should be coming from, the character.

As a writer, you’re not true to your character if you censor what they think and say. The important thing here is if your not true to your character the character will not feel real. Not to you, and certainly not to your reader. It doesn’t matter who your character is, a tough cop on the mean streets of Billingham or a lime green alien girl who dances in a strip bar just south of the planet Gimpplesuiten. They have to feel real, or the reader can not suspend their disbelief. They should talk, think and behave in a way which is true to that character. If they use words that are offensive in some way it is the character who offends. If indeed someone is offended.

If I can illustrate the point with a pop culture reference, ‘The Hound’ in Game Of Thrones constantly uses words that are offensive in of themselves. One word in particular I know several female friends of mine find especially offensive. Indeed it appears to be his favourite word. But that is part of who the character is and doing using that word as often as he does is true to that character… Those same GOT watching female friends of mine all like ‘The Hound’ as a character. If he suddenly ceased to use that particular word, the one that starts with a C as I am sure you can guess, they would I suspect quickly stop buying into ‘The Hound’s’ character. He would cease to feel real. Something Rory McCann, who plays him knows, which is why he has been known to add a few more C***s to the part than exist in the original scripts, despite the actor himself, not being inclined to use that word outside of that context. Which is the point, it is the character, and who he is that makes the use of that word right.


I myself have used that other big one, the ‘N’ word, in my novel Passing Place, it was used by Sonny Burbanks when he is telling his story to Richard, the Piano Player. Sonny is a coloured man who was born at the turn of the century, 1900, in South Carolina. Sonny’s world was one of the post slavery American south. A place rife with the racism of the time. He used it in the context of illustrating the verbal abuse that was inherent in his everyday life… It’s the only time the character uses the word, the only time the word appears in the novel. It fit what he was saying, and the story he was telling, and he would use that word that way. Do I, the writer, like the word, ever use the word or consider the word to be one that anyone should ever use in this day and age, or should have ever been used in the past come to that, no… But Sonny, the urbane, wise, doorman working at my impossible bar would use it in the context and in the way that he did. Frankly, I would have been untrue to him, and lying to the reader had I placed that word in his mouth. All I would have succeed in doing would be making Sonny the character less than what he is.

Sonny Burbanks is right at the heart of, or perhaps it’s truer to say embodies the soul of Esqwiths Passing Place, the transdimensional piano bar and grill that is the backdrop of the novel. He needed to be right, he needed to be ‘real’ for the readers. Or the novel would not have worked. He may not be the main character as the story of the novel is told from the perspective of Richard, but Sonny still has to be right, just as all the other characters have to be right. If I had not used that ‘N******’ when he told the tale that forms his backstory he would not have been as real as he is. Of all the characters in the novel, Sonny is the one that readers usually point to as their favourite. So I know I got him just right and made him real for them…

So there is my opinion, my view right or wrong. A writer should never censor their characters thoughts and words. And finally, I would add that if a reader can’t distinguish between the words and thoughts of a character, and find themselves offended by the use by a character of a particular word.  Then they (the reader) are been offensive to writers in question. No one is forcing anyone to read a writer’s work, you can not expect a writer to be untrue to his character and somehow make that character live at the same time…  Everyone has a right to be offended, don’t get me wrong, but no one has the right to impose rules or censor what characters can or can’t think and say. Or to think that a character should be any less than true to their nature…

adios for now


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5 Responses to That Offensive Word…

  1. humblewordsmith says:

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jack says:

    I agree, although as the editor of a short story site, I edit out that “c” word when I see it. The writer was true to his character, fine, but this editor must remain attuned to his readers’ tastes as well. Honestly, I think it’s a British-American thing. That C word carries a lot more nasty weight in the U.S.

    Liked by 1 person

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