I have a soft spot for British humor. I believe this stems from my first viewing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in high school. One of the first scenes after the knights receive their commission from God involves King Arthur and his knights trying to get into a French-controlled castle where they believe the Grail is being held. They attempt to talk their way in, but are met with strong verbal rebuffs from the sentry. Insults are hurled from the top of the gate, and the Knights of the Round Table make a hasty retreat after their egos have been sufficiently bruised.

The Frenchman’s barrage of creative insults is an example of what is known as invective.

anthony selonke vi Photo by Geoff George (Creative Commons

Examples of Invective in Literature

Invective is abrasive language designed to offend or hurt, but it can also be indicative of a desire to assign blame. It can be as mild as calling someone a chicken for being afraid to do something, or it can be as convoluted as calling someone’s father a hamster, and tacking on that their mother smells like elderberries.

Invective has use in literature, plays, and film. Shakespeare was fond of it, and Jonathan Swift made great use of invective in Gulliver’s Travels, when the Brobdingnagian king tells Gulliver that Englishmen sound like “…the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

Several well-known writers and comedians made use of invective in quips and sound bites. Oscar Wilde gave us a classic backhanded compliment with the wry observation, “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” Groucho Marx is credited with the zinger, “I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening, but this wasn’t it.”

Invective Aids Characterization

Invective can be used to establish characterization, both when it is spoken by a character, and when it is used to describe a character. When a character is fond of using invective, they can be seen as intensely critical or snobbish, or they may possess an exceedingly dry and sarcastic sense of humor. When someone uses invective to describe another character, that informs the relationship between those two characters, and how they play into the greater story.

It’s equally likely that a hero will use that language against a villain as it is to be the reverse, or maybe both characters are heroes; they just don’t get along very well.

Do you use invective in your writing?


Take a character from a work in progress, and either use invective to describe him or her, or write invective for him or her to spew about another character.

Write for fifteen minutes and post your practice in the comments. Leave notes for your fellow writers!

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.