Insults, swear words, and world-building for young adults: In an interview with James Dashner, I got the inside scoop on the language of The Maze Runner.
The Maze Runner is a young adult book that I adored. I stayed up until 2:00 a.m. reading the book, and while doing so, I noticed that the author, James Dashner, had used made up words that seemed like swear words. For example, the boys call each other shuckface and if they want to insult someone, they call him a shank.
I had some questions about how and why Dashner used these words, and he generously agreed to tell me about it.
In an e-mail, he wrote,
Some Authors Use Made-Up Swear Words When Writing for Young Readers
“The main reason I did it was twofold: First, and most practically, because the story takes place in a harsh environment, and I didn't want them running around saying, 'Oh, gee darn golly, here comes a Griever!' But I also didn't want to limit the schools and libraries that would be willing to carry the books. So I made up some words.”
I also asked Brandon Sanderson to reflect on made-up swear words because he’s created curses for his books, and he’s one of the hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast that gives advice for fiction writers and aspiring fiction writers. He wrote,
“In some of my works (the Mistborn trilogy at the forefront) I use curses from our world. This is because I not only made that world more of an "Earth analogue" so to speak, but because the rawness and familiarity of our world's curses helped reinforce the concept of a bunch of street thieves.
However, in other books, I feel that curses in-world help with the sense of immersion. Some readers also prefer it because of their dislike of our-world cursing. (This is a factor when I write for younger readers.)"
Made-Up Swear Words Are Part of World Building
Dashner, was also thinking of immersion and world-building in The Maze Runner. He noted that the boys in his story have been isolated for a while, so it would be normal for them to develop their own dialect. “It'd be good to give their language its own ‘flavor,’” he wrote.
Sanderson pointed out that there are risks to making up words, however. “The real trick here is to not pick something that sounds silly, and that can be tougher than it seems. Some people—such as the writers of the Battlestar Galactica reboot—prefer a word that sounds almost like an our-world curse, to get the idea across, [such as frack]. These have the danger of sounding very silly.
Dashner noted that, as with many things that come up when you’re writing fiction, it took him a while to strike the right balance. He had more made up words in his first draft, and his editor asked him to pare it back because it seemed a little overwhelming, and he says it will be scaled back even more in the movie. I thought it was perfect in the books, so it will be interesting to see if I notice the difference when I see the movie or if the visuals, action, and suspense overwhelm everything else.
Great Made-Up Swear Words Often Come From the Fictional Culture
Although it’s not related to the specific Maze Runner words, Sanderson also had interesting thoughts about religion-based swear words and world building. If you think about it, many oaths and curses in a culture relate to the deity, so it can make the culture you’re creating seem more real if their words also reflect their beliefs.
In his book The Rithmatist, which has been described as both a children’s book and a young adult book, the characters use magic that comes from drawing symbols with chalk, and they use the word dusts as a mild oath (as in chalk dust). Sanderson wrote, “There's really a line to walk. Dusts was chosen for The Rithmatist partially to have a 'safe' curse, but also because it is something sacred in their world, so using it as they do would sound worse to them than it does to us.”
Sanderson’s assistant, Peter Ahlstrom, also pointed me to other examples of swear words that come from the fictional culture’s religion. He wrote that Tad Williams has characters in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series curse using the name of his world's Christian analog's deity, Usires Aedon; and that Brian Staveley's characters in The Emperor's Blades use Kent-kissing, Kent being a shortened name of one of the gods.
Finally, as anyone who has tried to create a world knows, it’s gratifying when people embrace your creation. Dashner ended,
“I just love it when my readers use the slang when they talk to each other or to me.”
So if you ever get a chance to meet James Dashner in person, be sure to call him shuckface! I swear he will love it.