I’m not going to get into all the ins and outs of swearing – how it works in the brain, the reasons for using it, the social implications. All very interesting stuff, but it’s not our purpose here.
I’m going to quickly remind all and sundry that if you’re a writer of children’s books or religious matter, this stuff is radioactive and isn’t for you. Other fiction writers should merely be certain that a cuss word is the mot juste, just like you do with every other word you use.
Ursula K. LeGuin takes a dim view of writers who overuse the good old Anglo-Saxon imperatives, and she’s got a pretty solid point. These are people who take their cue from B.D. in Doonesbury: A fellow soldier B.D. was heading with to the first Gulf War said he had been a civilian so long he no longer knew how to use the f-word; B.D. said, “Easy. You just use it like a comma.” These words can be dynamite if used sparingly and trite if used like commas.
And that reminds me of this oversaturated paragraph from a college textbook:
I was walking along on this fucking fine morning, fucking sun fucking shining away, little fucking country lane, when I meets up with this fucking girl. Fucking lovely she was, so we gets into a fucking conversation and I takes her over a fucking gate into a fucking field and we has sexual intercourse.
Some characters are not realistic if they are not spewing forth in this fashion. So let them. But they should be largely alone in this hobby so as to be distinct.
And while we’re at it, there are distinctions to be made between profanity, obscenity, and vulgarity that I believe are worth keeping. If nothing else, it can be good fun to be pedantic when someone complains about some overheard profanity and you correctly note it was, instead, vulgarity.
UPDATE: Here are definitions of the words and examples of each. I hope they’ll be helpful.
Vulgar: the basic meaning is inelegant, unrefined, low class usage
Example: A doctor saying, “The appendix is inflamed. We’re going to have to operate and take that bitch out.”
Profane: the basic meaning is insulting to God or religion; to desecrate; antonym: sacred
Example: “Jesus H. Christ! that’s the goddamned dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Obscene: the basic meaning is repulsive, dirty, offensive to modesty or decency; often involves sexual terms or words involving bodily functions
Example: “If you don’t like what I have to say, you can go fuck yourself.”