I know that they teach us not to insult people when we are growing up, and that’s good advice for dealing with real people. Really, if you want to get along in this world, insults aren’t going to do it for you. However, when it comes to characters in stories, insults are quite handy. Characters need to be insulted now and then – it adds to the conflict.
You can sit at your computer and insult your characters directly. I know that there are many times when I’ve stared at my computer screen and told the people living in the words there how turkey faced they are and would they “kindly just get back to the god damned plot already you fuckers.” That’s not what I’m talking about. I want to tell you about the times when your characters are insulting each other. That’s where the really interesting stuff is.
Take a moment now and think about all the insults you know.
Take as long as you need.
There are a lot of them aren’t there?
Now think about this: Why are those words insulting?
Many of you I’m sure answered that last question with “because they are.” You maybe even shrugged your shoulders. I’ll tell you now, there’s more to it than that. Insults are insulting because they tap into deep cultural norms. Let’s take a look at the word “fucker”. I know, it was bound to come out in a post about insults so let’s get it over with. “Fuck” is a slang word that generally means “the act of sex”. Nothing wrong there, except that it being slang there is added meaning that this “act of sex” isn’t the kind that’s accepted by the culture. Johns fuck prostitutes, mothers don’t fuck fathers (they “make love”). So if you call someone a “fucker” you are saying that they are the kind of person who has sex outside of the cultural norms.
I’d like to take a moment now to point out that the term has lost a lot of power with recent years of over use. That happens with insults. We don’t call someone a “commie” when we don’t like their politics anymore. We do however still use words like “retard” and “fag” despite cultural pressures to retire these insults. But the reason they are insulting is still relevant. “Retard” is literally calling someone “stupid”. Which tells us that our culture values intelligence, or more appropriately quick wits. I want to point out that retarded people aren’t stupid, it just takes them longer to get through the thought process. “Fag” is a more interesting one. It is still used frequently in some subcultures and has fallen out of use in others. “Fag” as a slang term refers to the grossness of being homosexual. Calling someone a “fag” then is telling them they are gross. It is also telling you that the speaker thinks that homosexuals are gross.
Taking this back into fiction, insults are a great way to build your world. If your character is from a fishing village and wanders into an upscale inn in the capitol only to be told to “Get out you wetback” we learn a lot. First that fishing isn’t a respected profession and that the focus of that disdain is the water. If a pair of adventurers disagree about what they are going to do next and one calls the other a coward in this form: “You white lipped son of a green goat”, what do we learn? We know that being white lipped and green goats are not respected. You might need a little more context to get to the real meaning. The important thing is that you know that the character was insulted. And you know that they were insulted in the context of their culture.
Sometimes you’ll have to make the fact that the character was insulted clear in the reaction. Every culture is going to have it’s own values on which people can insult each other. Just like we have our issues about sex, other cultures may put more of a focus on church going or what kind of vegetables you eat. Can you imagine the scandal if anyone suggested that the queen might actually eat celery? That could get you a one way ticket to the dungeons in the wrong kingdom.
Insults aren’t always words either. Think middle finger. Some actions can get you into trouble too, or start the fight if that’s what you’re going for. I’m sure you can think of examples from our world (Scotsmen mooning their opponents?). The point is that even these actions lead back to the cultural norms for their force of power. Mooning wouldn’t be such an insult if we didn’t value modesty in the form of keeping our butts covered. The Brit’s two fingered salute has it’s historical context which links it to cultural pride.
I’ve been having fun with insults in my fiction, with the added benefit (since I don’t write in this world) that I can have my characters being truly offensive to each other and not getting in trouble with the censors or critics who like things all proper. Mainstream authors don’t have to forgo this though. Most insults are actually based not on the full culture, but rather on the personal lives of the people involved. These kinds of personal insults are just as emotive as the general ones, but only to the characters involved. These are the ones that will be highlighted by the reactions to the insult.
Get out there and insult your characters like you mean it.