October 26, 2007
My former career as a police officer seemed like an alluring one to many. All the way back to the old 1951 TV series "Dragnet" with Jack Webb, and later on with 1968 to "Adam-12" with Martin Milner and Kent McCord, these shows planted an image of police officers as curt professionals in the minds of the public. Their language was official, and they were all business. Jack Webb's character, Sgt. Joe Friday, made "Just the facts, Ma'am" part of the American lexicon. The awful truth however, is that cops have filthy mouths. Also, the criminals that police interact with tend to spew obscenities as a second language. Together, police and "suspects" become a cursing, swearing, and profane, mega-force whose power doesn’t always switch off in polite company. I’ve been to many an occasion where I had to suddenly remember "where I was" and not drop the "F-Bomb" at my wife's, Grandmother's 83rd birthday party.
Since I left the police department in 1999, I switched careers and now work in the information technology field. Still, I am a writer as much as I was a cop or a computer geek. Much of my writing revolves around the world of crime, patrol officers, and the occasional shootout. But, to balance my credibility with the reader and the dialogue between my characters, I am very selective with my use of profanity. It is said that a good novel is not what you put into it, but what you take out of it. So, in order to allow my characters to converse with each other without my story reading like a wall in a public restroom, I save the vulgarities for moments where it would have the most impact.
For example, in my most recent story, my protagonist is a retired cop who lost his wife and daughter to a drunk driver. His best friend is a retired detective whose lover died of cancer. They bond because of their loneliness, but have to defend themselves from the organized crime figures who wish to take revenge against the detective for arresting them decades earlier and landing them in prison. My original draft had the two of them cursing, swearing, and expressing themselves with incredible vulgarity to the point where it became tedious, boring, and ultimately ineffective. In the end, I deleted all of the four letter words and discovered that in some scenes they really weren’t saying much of anything each other, let alone the reader, and that much of the dialogue was worthless. After scrapping much of the unnecessary bad language, I began to write more dramatic discourse without the F-word and the like, and I told the story with a fresh voice.
Towards the climax of the story, where my protagonist is confronted by the murderer of his wife and daughter, I finally allowed my character to unleash his rage, and he did it with every available tool on his belt, including the four-letter variety. The words became more vile, hurtful, and effective because the reader hadn’t seen them for most of the book and they come on as a bit of a surprise. At least that’s the feedback I’ve received from those who have read the manuscript already. So, I’m glad I held back, trusted my instincts, and washed my characters' mouths out with soap.
Am I saying that a writer shouldn’t allow his or her characters to curse? Of course not. As always, these articles reflect my method of writing. If anyone finds any of this useful, I am happy to have helped. If you think that I am being too careful and that you can have your characters curse early and often in your stories, then go ahead. Do whatever the fuck you want.
curse swear profanity Adam-12 Dragnet police cops suspects writer police department information technology shootout novel dilogue characters protagonist organized crime