I think about cursing a lot. Actually, you can cut that down to, “I curse a lot.” I’m not exactly proud of it, but I’ve come to accept cursing (and let’s say “swearing” from here on out, or else things’ll get confusing; we are talking about fantasy, with its actual curses after all).
Whether you like them or not, swears are a prevalent feature in modern language, and even a person who doesn’t like swearing will do it anyway in the right moment–much like how an atheist will still shout, “Oh, God!” on occasion. There are words for every moment–mental niches that we fill with automatic phrases–and that’s where swears fit.
The thing is, in my experience, swears . . . don’t translate super well to fantasy. At best, writers use our own set of swears–particularly the gold standards: shit and fuck.
At worst–and this is just my opinion by the way–fantasy writers fall back on a set of token fantasy swear phrases that everyone uses.
“By _______’s _______!” as in, “By Odin’s/Escribyr’s/Whoever’s beard/hammer/whatever!”
“May the _______ take you!” as in, “May the Rot/Demonspawn/Whatever take you!”
“You _______-damned fool!” as in, “You Rot/Escribyr/Whatever or Whoever-damned fool!”
Now, these trends aren’t necessarily bad, but they often take me out of a reading experience regardless, just by how familiar they are. Just by how many times I’ve seen them recycled in the fantasy genre.
It all winds up just feeling . . . easy. And I hate easy.
So, what are the alternatives?
Well, I’m no expert; I’m just a guy who’s been published once (go check out “Aixa the Hexcaster” at Mirror Dance Fantasy if you haven’t–#shameless), but I can at least tell you the ways I’ve tried to make curses feel more believable and unique in my fantasy worlds.
1. Settle into the Lore
A lot of times, fantasy writers have super dense lore that they’ve created for their worlds. Gods in particular will have interesting and very specific characterization, even down to something as simple as, “This god floats through the earth, shifting the ore in the mountains, bringing it to those miners who she deems worthy.”
And let’s keep rolling with that example. We’ll call that god . . . Russell Stover . . . Look, the box of chocolates from yesterday is still here–gimme a break.
Now, the easy positive swear upon finding a rich ore vein would be, “By Russell Stover’s blessing!” It works, but it sounds a little typical.
Settling in though, really putting myself in the shoes of one of these miners, however, I can come up with a more interesting and natural sounding, “She favors me!” The frantic, concise cry of a miner (probably a prospector) who’s found a sizable chunk of gold, or experienced any good fortune really.
I know, it doesn’t sound like a swear, but it falls back on the whole “taking a god’s name in vane” thing.
Anyway, what I’m saying is, take more time–with your world’s lore–when coming up with your story’s curses.
2. Brevity Sounds More Natural
A big part of the reason why we fall back on swears–particularly negative ones–is that they’re super concise. Because we want them to be. “That son of a bitch!” is often whittled down to a frustrated, “Sonuvabitch!” “God damn it!” can shrink to, “Goddammit!” and then, “Dammit!”
What I’m trying to say here is, although there are absolutely times for long fantasy swears, people aren’t going to say, “You Rot-damned fool!” every single time. Humans, by their nature, would cut it down to “Rotted fool!” or maybe even just a forcefully spat, “Rot!”
For the sake of variety, find more concise versions of your curses and work them in where they fit.
3. Earth-Modern Swears Are Fine if They’re Universal
Fuck. Shit. Cock. Bitch. These are words that, for the most part, apply to all fantasy worlds.
But, not all earth-modern swears work in every fantasy world. Even “bitch” is risky, meaning that if your fantasy world doesn’t have canines, would the word “bitch” even exist?
The most common pitfall with this is “hell.” “Hell” appears in a ton of fantasy novels, even if those novels don’t have a hell myth. It’s an easy mistake to make, because “hell” is such a staple of earth-modern swears.
But, if hell doesn’t exist in your fantasy world, the word “hell” shouldn’t exist either. And neither should the notion that you can tell someone to go to any other mythical or religious prison if there isn’t one for them to go to.
The alternative? Drop into the lore again. Is there a terrible place in your world where people can be sent? Keep in mind, by the way, that place doesn’t have to be otherworldly.
And, returning to the Russell Stover example from earlier–for a religion-based insult that has nothing to do with telling someone to go somewhere–“she finds you unworthy” would work as a base insult for our culture of miners. Although, naturally, it would be shortened to a knowing, “Unworthy.”
Well, that’s all I’ve got when it comes to fantasy swears. There are other standards of them, but I think they’re well known, or obvious. Don’t use earth-modern gods unless your world is set in earth. Try giving each culture in your world some unique curses of their own.
But, what I want to stress overall here is, don’t just fall into the habits of other writers. I think fantasy is at its worst when our writers copy each other. Of course, the same can be said of any genre, but I feel creative shortcuts are particularly damning in fantasy, where we’re meant to be creative about absolutely everything.
Take your time. Don’t rush. Give all of the small details love. No matter how fucking vile they are.
I’ll keep working on fantasy swears myself, because mine definitely don’t feel perfect. But I hope this post helped out a fellow writer, or at least gave them a few things to consider.
Regardless, thanks for passing by. And, as always, write well.