A Guide to Cussing in Alternative Universes

No, this isn’t a blog biography of Gene Hackman.

While our culture’s realistic books and movies are sometimes jam-packed with every cuss word under the sun, it is the fantasy worlds we so love to escape to that often give us words that flit somewhere between dangerously corny and delightfully fun to say. Being someone that doesn’t cuss very often, it is always a treat to get hold of a new word from fantasy and drop it into casual conversations. Sometimes, I’m so ingrained in the fantasy world that it comes out in daily conversation. Sometimes people stare. Sometimes.

My first experience with the alternative cuss word of a far-off galaxy came in the form of Spongebob Squarepants. The genius writers of one of Nickelodeon’s most successful cartoons did a wonderful job removing well-known cuss words without removing the “I’m clearly cursing something right now” element. When Spongebob stubs his toe or forgets to do something or is terrorized by Plankton, it is common to hear him shout, “Oh, barnacles!” What an easy, kid-friendly replacement for cursing.

Sometimes, simple changes are the most natural and hilarious. In The Fantastic Mr. Fox, writers replaced cussing with… well, cussing. In a scene between Badger and Mr. Fox, we get to see the full extent of their verbal weaponry:

Badger: In summation, I think you just got to not do it, man. That’s all.

Mr. Fox: I understand what you’re saying, and your comments are valuable, but I’m gonna ignore your advice.

Badger: The cuss you are.

Mr. Fox: The cuss am I? Are you cussing with me?

Badger: No, you cussing with me?

Mr. Fox: Don’t cussing point at me!

Badger: If you’re gonna cuss with somebody, you’re not gonna cuss with me, you little cuss!

Again, not particularly in your face and a wonderful replacement to make a movie accessible and fitting within the universe of thieving foxes and talking badgers. But what about the truly alternative worlds? That’s where the necessity for newer and differently-originated cuss words comes from. We have our world and our languages and they developed a certain way. But if I’m diving into a different universe with different people and languages and development, well, they’re not going to have some of the same words. We suspend reality for certain things, but we also are forced to get creative when imagining how someone would curse in our sub-created universe. Here are some great examples I’ve encountered in my own reading:

1. Bloodydamn- Not too far from the beaten path, but a slight adjustment to a common word bleeds originality into the cuss words of Pierce Brown’s characters in Red Rising. As he would say, you’ll bloodydamn love his book.

2. ‘Kent-kissing- The inspiration for this post! I’ve been reading Brian Staveley’s new book, The Emperor’s Blades. In it, characters toss this word around in necessary situations (Example: I need a ‘Kent-kissing break from my ‘Kent-kissing job).

3. Belgium – In A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Belgium is “completely banned in all parts of the Galaxy, except in one part, where they don’t know what it means, and in serious screenplays.” To direct this word at someone else is both unthinkable and, if we’re honest, hilarious.

4. Merlin’s beard!- Just one of many clever twists in J.K. Rowling’s world, but the ancient and well-known wizard finds himself inserted into the cursing of modern day wizards in both this and the also-popular, “Merlin’s pants!”

5. Frak-  Perhaps the most popular and well-known cuss word in fictional universes, this sanitized Battlestar Galactica TV swear word may be the nerdiest and most used of them all.

So, what are some of your favorite alternative cuss words? Or how have you seen fantasy language impacted by world and setting? Thanks for reading!

How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways…

One of the most universal truths in life? Things are against you. Life is full of conflict. There are things that are trying to stop you, people trying to stop you, even you are trying to stop you sometimes. Stories are no different. When you read or watch a story, you expect to have conflict (which, it turns out, is the number one answer for my students when asked ‘What makes a good story?’).

And if conflict is so integral and identifiable to us, doesn’t it matter a whole lot how we write our antagonists?

I use a pretty simple method for keeping up with my antagonists that is of my own invention. I don’t doubt there is something else out there just like this, but I promise that I’ve only ever seen it in my brain. In fact, I teach it in my classes. It is the Threefold Method.

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If we enjoy reading characters that are going through conflict, then the author should consider where the conflict will come from and how to include conflict in as many scenes as possible. I love the above method for its simplicity.

1. The Immediate Threat- These are the Draco Malfoy’s and ra’zac of the literature universe. Those annoying characters that turn into bitter rivals and always seem to be arriving on the scene to get in the last laugh or take advantage of our hero at a particularly vulnerable moment. The immediate threat is the person in the scene with whom our protagonist feels tension, or the person keeping them from getting what they want (or putting them in danger) at that given moment. This person can change from scene to scene.

2. Surprise Friends and Surprise Enemies– Severus Snape anyone? I’ll use William Forrester from Finding Forrester as a less obvious example. At the start of the movie, he is the immediate threat. On some level, he threatens Jamal’s life, and on other levels he threatens his integrity as a young black man. However, this clearly antagonistic character softens and eventually becomes the clear mentor and guide through Jamal’s heroic journey. These characters are some of the most fun to play with. Convince us that a character is good, then make them do the worst imaginable things. Convince that a character is rotten to the core, and then give them a touching scene with a fluffy puppy. Up to you!

3. The Overarching Enemy– A pretty common idea, but this is the threat that looms large behind and past all other threats. In Eragon, we don’t even meet Galbatorix for four books. He’s an idea, a presence that is felt throughout the empire, but he remains out of sight. Voldemort is similar. His methods of attacking Harry are very roundabout for the first handful of books. We know that a great evil looms behind each threat, but the fullness of his power isn’t realized for many books.

If you have a sense of these character types, it’s easy to juggle them throughout your scenes… Let’s take The Daedalus Incident by Michael Martinez as an example.

Immediate Threat- Cagliostro – the alchemist is established early on as a pressing threat. Martinez even has a notorious pirate poised as the “lesser” immediate threat alongside Cagliostro.

Surprise Friends/Enemies – Harry Yu and a few other residents on Mars fill in nicely here. The bizarre earthquakes threatening the life of Mars in our universe’s timeline cast suspicion in a lot of different directions. Who is the guilty party? Martinez leaves us to piece together clues that may or may not lead us to the right conclusions.

Overarching Threat- Althotas- Again, the other antagonists lead us to an overarching evil that has somehow been working behind the scenes and represents a far more dangerous reckoning for our characters. As much as they fear the immediate threat at times, they continue to view those threats in the perspective of this greater evil (in this case a cross-dimensional warlord with some serious anger issues and a potential need for plastic surgery).

 

Is this the only way to write your antagonists? Of course not! But the threefold method helps me immensely and reminds me to find different reasons for bringing in the surprise enemy or friend at just the right moments, as well as refreshing my character’s intensity through an immediate threat that develops, amplifies, or changes throughout the story.

I promise a blog about my recent wedding is coming ASAP! Hope you enjoyed the read.