On adult characters and mature content in SNAFU

Writing adult characters for adult readers is an interesting process. I’m not intending to write any explicit sexual content into this particular story, but (by the same token) there are certain things that I cannot reasonably ignore, either.

All of the protagonists in this story are adults (even if some of them only qualify as young adults), and as such they’re going to behave like them.

If you’ll allow me a slight digression, the setting for SNAFU is approximately equivalent to our own world in about 1910-1915. Some things are a little more advanced, some things are less so.

Technologically, the world is advancing in leaps and bounds, though trains have yet to graduate from steam-power, and radio is still so new that it is still a purely military tool, and functionally just a wireless telegraph.

Social advances are more prevalent, however. The Free Republic of Fracia broke away from the Westrish Empire seventy years before, not on issues of taxation or administration, but on issues of human rights and equality.

In response, some years later, the Imperial Crown implemented its own socially progressive programmes across the Empire. There are overlaps with the rights and freedoms of Fracia, but the Empire has taken a different approach to human rights and the equality of its citizens.

And that brings us back to our characters.

In the melting pot of our story, we have the representatives of four different nations (or three and a micro-nation, if you prefer). These are adult people, and they do and think and feel the things that adults do.

There’s tobacco use (appropriate to the time period, roughly one half of the characters are smokers), alcohol use (I don’t think any of them are non-drinkers), and profanity.

People swear. They swear when they’re angry, shocked, surprised or upset. That’s what people do. When it happens, it is always the most appropriate word for the character and the circumstance, because not doing it that way feels like cheating. Someone might say “dang” or “darn” or “poot” – but only when it is appropriate for that character to use those words. Otherwise, they’re using the sorts of words that any adult might use under the circumstances.

Characters refer to bodily functions, undergarments, body-parts and more, whenever and as-ever they need referring to, and using the terms which the character finds most familiar and comfortable. “Bum” and “butt” appear, but “arse” is more common among the majority of the characters. You’ll also see the word “teats” (traditionally pronounced “tits”), as well as the modern slang variation “tits” (also pronounced “tits”), as well as “boobs” or “breasts”. It all depends on who is talking.

Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that the narrative sounds like a loop-tape of Stephen Fry having just stubbed his toe on the dresser. It doesn’t.

But I don’t artificially censor the characters when they’re talking or narrating. It sounds awfully weird, when I try it, and it doesn’t feel very honest.

I’m totally able to write material that doesn’t go this route. Just not with these particular characters in this particular setting. These aren’t particularly crude or foul-mouthed people, quite the contrary, but they’re appropriate in their use of profanity, and are able to express adult concepts in adult ways.

All that said, I’ve churned out over 173,000 words without once mentioning anyone’s genitalia. It hasn’t come up (no pun intended). It certainly might, but it will be more matter-of-fact than explicit when, or if, it does.

Of course, there’s always the other way of doing things. Some fiction uses an unfamiliar language for profanity, and some invents words. The problem with those, as I see it, is that the profanity is no less profane. You might say “frack” or “sugar” but everyone knows what you mean by the way you say it, and the contexts in which it is used. That makes it no more nor less offensive than the word it replaces.

To me, it feels more honest to let the characters speak and narrate as is appropriate for the story. It might sound lazy, but I don’t think it is.  Seriously, I have lists of words and phrasings that each character prefers. There’s more work involved than you might suppose.