Realistic Language in Fiction

The “Your Questions Answered” Series


I’m a former crime reporter and trauma survivor with lots of counseling writing a suspense novel. I’m trying to balance Christian fiction guidelines with the speech and behavior I’ve seen in police stations and at crime scenes. I’ve come up with some of my own ways to show through action that a cop is angry or frustrated, but can you guide us to some books where cops sound like cops without the swear words? I’m not a big fan of “he swore softly under his breath,” which I see a good bit. Also, is there such a thing as a character being too angry with God, as long as she turns back to him well before the story ends? 

I admire and understand that you want to be realistic. But since Christian readers are looking for uplifting fiction, I think you are safe focusing on the victory of God’s glory over the day-to-day grit of how some police officers and criminals might speak and act. At the same time, I agree that using the same dialogue as you would for small children would take the reader out of the story. Many an author before you has tackled this problem and succeeded. I recommend reading popular Christian authors writing in the suspense genre for guidelines. Here is an excellent link that will take you to 35 recommendations from Family Fiction online magazine. They often publish similar lists in various genres.

Steve Laube has also written about the broader topic in his post “Edgy Fiction.”

As for being too angry with God, as long as you write a convincing portrayal of the character’s journey and don’t make the conversion too fast or pat, you should be fine.

Your turn:

Do you think police officers and detectives are portrayed accurately in Christian suspense novels? Why or why not?

What is your favorite conversion story in fiction? Why?

For the entire series, click here: “Your Questions Answered.”


15 Responses to Realistic Language in Fiction

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 6, 2020 at 6:32 am #

    There was a time when what we call ‘realistic’ language wasn’t allowed, period. And still, the searing books were written…Ruark’s “Something of Value” and Monsarrat’ “The Cruel Sea” coming immediately to mind.

    They didn’t have the easy way out of writing acceptable profanity to tell a story in which profanity would have been as prevelant in use as it is today, but substituting skill for the actual words, I think you may agree that they got the point across.

    The pull to write real language
    is one I understand,
    but do you want to damage
    your name, your rep, and brand?
    There are tales that should be told,
    but heed how they are heard;
    that which you write can be so bold
    with nary a bad word.
    Look back to when there was rule,
    to Ruark and Monsarrat;
    they could not the censors fool,
    and I think that we forgot
    the skill they used to set a scene
    in harrow’d time, with language clean.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 6, 2020 at 6:56 am #

      Andrew, you’re amazing in your talent for writing a poem without prior knowledge of the topic, and so quickly! Thanks for being a supportive part of our blog community!

  2. Linda Riggs Mayfield August 6, 2020 at 6:53 am #

    I don’t have any experience beyond TV, where language is still regulated, that would allow me to discern if an author’s portrayal of police station language accurate or not. But Carrie Stuart Parks does, so I trust her on that and in her award-winning Gwen Marcey murder mystery series, she made it real with not an offensive word.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 6, 2020 at 6:56 am #

      Linda, thanks for the helpful recommendation!

    • carrie stuart parks August 8, 2020 at 10:07 am #

      Thank you for the call out, Linda! As a law enforcement instructor teaching across the US and Canada, the language (read cuss words) vary quite a bit by location. Not the choice of words, which seems to lack imagination, but the amount. If you think about it, however, cussing is a reflection of frustration, anger, or other strong emotion (although for some, it’s just a part of their everyday speaking.) Sticking to the suspense story line and showing the emotion through actions, rather than speech, allows the author to keep the story accurate. I note that our students (cops) are capable of communicating with us and their classmates quite easily and professionally without strong language. 😀

  3. JB Blake August 6, 2020 at 10:27 am #

    I appreciate this article. There needs to be more public discourse about the effect of crude language on a civilization. I am so disgusted with hearing the F-bomb everywhere. Movies and entertainers use it. People who are shopping or working out at the gym use it. Younger generations have made it their standard response when they are caught in a lie or a serious error. A civilization can be destroyed by corrupting language and thinking skills. There are no national figures of any prominence commenting on this subject. If there is to be any improvement it will need to bubble-up from the general population level. In other words, from us.

  4. Megan Schaulis August 6, 2020 at 10:30 am #

    I’ve run into this issue a lot in YA where even general audience authors have to be conscious of the age of the audience. I think fantasy writers have it a little easier in that they can make up expressions relevant to their created world! (I like Sara Ella’s efforts in the Unblemished series.) On the other hand, I’ve read Christian novels where the repeated use of foul language euphemisms—“he let out a string of words that would embarrass a sailor”—start to take me out of the story.

  5. Melanie August 6, 2020 at 11:52 am #

    I seldom stop reading a book once I start, but there have Ben some mainstream books I’ve given up on because I was afraid if I kept reading, I would speak the same words as the characters,. The reason no national figures are speaking against profanity is that they’re too busy using it. Just listen and read quotes from our presidential candidates

  6. Kristen Joy Wilks August 6, 2020 at 12:08 pm #

    Hmmm … this is a hard one. When I pick up a secular detective novel, I expect some language, but am likely to put the novel down if the hero is leering at or disrespecting women. But when I pick up a Christian detective novel, I expect murder and mayhem but I don’t want language and am willing to suspend my disbelief in order to have a no-language reading experience. In the Christian market, I really really expect the hero to be respectful of women! So no mean heroes or gaslighting at all please. Hope this helps.

  7. Christine L. Henderson August 6, 2020 at 6:30 pm #

    I’m currently reading a Colleen Coble romantic suspense novel, which I am enjoying — and no curse words! The only differences I see with the FBI and Sheriff’s in the story is their short direct lines. Not a lot of lingo, but there’s plenty of quick action so I don’t even dwell on what they’re saying.

  8. OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU August 7, 2020 at 7:59 am #

    Thanks for this post Tamela. It is interesting to note the different views of people towards the use of language that depict the essential nature of a low life character. I have joined the band wagon of frowning at the use of crude language in Christian fiction. One side of the argument is that some Christians want a safe haven when they read christian fiction. Some might not really care knowing that in the long run,the character will become a believer and have faith in God and the change in language would be a strong narrative technique. I have enjoyed John Lawson’s ‘If a wicked man’ and Kathi Macias’ Red ink’ in which there are very low life characters but the emphasis have been put in the plot, scenes and actions of the story that one doesn’t notice much the language of the low lives in their books who eventually become born again.
    I think that Christian writers can cleverly allude to language used by prostitutes, criminals and other low lives without sounding cliche or being offensive to readers just as Christine Henderson said. Also as Tamela said, if Christian writers write uplifting fiction depicting God’s glory through a convincing portrayal of a christian’s journey in faith, the language used might not be an issue.
    I also know that I would not like to read words of evil etc and will be put off.
    Thanks again Tamela for this post. God bless you.

  9. Lynn L Brown August 7, 2020 at 1:13 pm #

    My favorite conversion story is in my historical novel Furs and Fevers. Because the conversion is not the point of the story but crucial to it, it can awaken questions without offense. It is historical fact that my protagonist converted from Catholicism to Methodism because he could not believe that a loving God would send his soul mate to purgatory.

  10. Bev Murrill August 8, 2020 at 1:27 am #

    I wasn’t able to go to the link for the 35 recommendations … nowhere to click to take me to that article, only to other issues of the magazine.

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