For the Writer: On the Use of Violence in Fiction
(Three Common Problems and their Causes)
It has never failed to surprise me how the most ardent anti-sex groups are the ones who most often use violence and death in their works without worrying about the impact it has on their readers/viewers. It is the example cited by Hustler editor Larry Flint, whether the naked body is more obscene than a fully clothed body mutilated beyond recognition by bullets. Though it is not a problem confined to America, it is one I am more accustomed to, seeing young teens and pre-teens encouraged to use weapons but denied access to Michelangelo's David or the images of nymphs and fauns in Hellenistic artwork. This is not to say I am against youngsters being allowed firearms, but there is a kind of cognitive dissonance in society's view between sex and violence. In my life, I was allowed access to images of nudity, and (although some may disagree) I'm not the worse for it.
However, I was also allowed access to images of violence, such as that of the first Conan movie, the Pink Floyd The Wall movie, and heavy metal videos of the time. An image that has stayed with me is that of a cartoon kitten on television high stepping around bullets as they plow the earth around it, only to sit down and have its head shot off, with all the blood and shock that goes with that image. I still feel sick thinking about it, and part of me wishes I'd never seen it. Another part of me is glad I saw it, however, as it gave me an example to draw upon when considering the nature of art, necessary violence and gratuitous violence. It's not something you can hide from, nor is it something to use casually. In fiction, violence and death can be both ugly and beautiful, stylized and realistic, honorable and reprehensible, and it must always be treated with this dual nature in mind if the writer wishes to convey any kind of real emotion to their work. If the writer simply glosses over the violence/death they use, treating it with only one level of meaning (or worse, creating something vulgar), the image will be empty and sickening in its amateurish delivery.
By a level of meaning, I mean that violence/death works on more than just the level of manipulating the reader's emotions. If the point of violence is only to illustrate just how vicious and cruel one character can be, the scene will lose its impact save to those who cannot see that they are being manipulated. This is not literary arrogance; after reading a few books, anyone can usually see when the writer is manipulating them. As in many fictions, fan or original, if the hero's romantic interest is raped and beaten by the villain, it only serves to make us pity the victim and hate the villain. It becomes a hurt/comfort fic. The writer does not want to fall into the trap of melodrama and sink into complacency when some reviews come back "wonderful/heart-rending." Many of us have read and written this type of story, but readers will outgrow that kind of work, and the writer should, too.
Poorly written violence can also result in nauseating your reader. I know, sometimes you want to nauseate your reader, but I'm talking about making them sick with either vulgarity or disrespect, in essence the same thing. This often happens when the writer does not understand the severity of a person's injuries, the way a body reacts to certain trauma, or the way the character in question will respond to violence. The scene comes across as thin, unreal, flat and awful to read. I'm not saying you have to be a doctor or study anatomy, but you must always remember that even if you're writing for fanfiction cartoon characters, they are made of bone and blood, marrow and spinal fluid.
They are also still human (even if they're aliens or halflings.) Characters are interesting because of the human traits they exhibit, their personalities, their emotions, their fears and desires. An author who forgets this during a bloody scene will write cavalier, meaningless deaths that are both boring and insipid. When writing violence, the author must keep in mind their character's background, history, and sometimes gender. Otherwise, as with writing lemons, the author will only have puppets going through the motions, never a good thing in any story.
*Three Common Problems*
One of the problems made regarding violence is adopting a cavalier attitude. This is either done through a lack of detail or an attitude of nonchalance that does not fit with what the fic wants. The lack of detail is the easiest "problem" to remedy. I say "problem" because in some fics the lack of detail may be intentional, or the one or two details that are already there may be more powerful than an entire paragraph of details. Words are the writer's tools, and it's up to the writer to use them to their greatest benefit.
Although each scene of violence requires its own approach, there are some universals we can look at. Depending on your rating, you can tailor your amount of violence to deliver the desired intensity of the scene's impact. Despite some people's proclivity to gore and blood, the splatter shots don't necessarily add to your scene. Blood is a detail that, unless plot-related, might be superfluous. Too few proper details can make your fic seem thin. A couple of the right details in the right place can give your reader an emotional gut punch.
Look at your scenes. You don't want to gloss over your violence, describing the action only in vague feelings or clichés. You don't need to worry about what most writers do, namely that they "can't write action." Your characters will write it for you, if their personalities are strong and you let them take some control from you. A bottle can smash against someone's head, but it means nothing if the person doesn't react beyond lunging into a counter attack, and there are many ways for a person to react. Someone who's never been in a fight before will go into shock and collapse. A regular bar-room brawler will see stars, groan and stumble back. Unless your character is Wolverine, he better not just growl and lunge.
And then you have to take into account the attacker. A frightened boy or girl will take the opportunity to try to run, setting up the victim (no longer the victim perhaps) to make a grab for them. An angry fighter might follow up the hit by shoving the jagged glass into his victim's face. Now we can bring in the blood and gore.
Draw on your own experiences. No, I doubt you've all had that kind of injury, but you must have had smaller accidents. Ever got a nasty cut from broken glass? For awhile it doesn't hurt, but it also won't stop bleeding. You put it under cold water and it stings, and your knees feel shaky and there might be a sick welling in your stomach. Now magnify that. Imagine it on your face. Maybe in an eye. Can he see to block the next hit? Here's something you don't often hear: when one eye is blinded, the other goes too just out of spite. Now you can use gore as a plot point since the shock and blood in his eyes and the stinging and burning of a cut (because "sting" and "burn" are much more emotive than "pain") affect the outcome of the story.
Details can be added and manipulated for effect. What becomes more difficult to affect is the writer's own feelings regarding violence. In a squeamish writer, there may be a resistance to consequential pain, (ie. they'll write someone being hit but you might not see a bruise afterwards). In a pacifist writer, violence may always be evil, an inversion of the natural order. All of these can be valid styles.
The only really damaging attitude a writer can have is a cavalier, nonchalant approach to violence. A careless cavalier view treats violence too easily, too lightly, and not in a good way. The cavalier approach does work well, but usually only in the genres of satire and parody. A good example is Dogge's Hamlet, which is Hamlet in five minutes where everyone dies on stage including two guards who simply stab each other since everyone else is dead. Death is funny, violence is a farce, but here the writer is never, ever careless. The action is specific, crafted, finely tuned and balanced, whereas the careless writer's death and violence will be random, ramshackle, unbalanced and meaningless. A death in satire might be meaningless, but that will be a statement in and of itself, a commentary on the wastefulness of whatever actions led to that death.
The difference is not so slight as it might appear. In bad writing, a few soldiers may die and their deaths are only a backdrop, perhaps at most reminding the reader that this scene takes place in a battle. In good writing, the deaths might be significant to the main character, might build upon a theme, such as bravery or waste, or might give the author an opportunity to segue into a meditation on their deaths. In other words, death and violence in good fiction will mean something. In bad fiction, they could be erased without taking anything from the story.
Vulgarity for Vulgarity's Sake
Finally we stumble into more abstract territory, dealing with the value judgments of both the writer and the reader. True, the writer must make value judgments while she writes, but these decisions take a different resonance when the judgments involve violence and death. The writer must decide how to present her scene to her readers, whether to shock them, horrify them, draw sympathy, or elicit any other specific emotion to them. In doing this, the writer's intent can both be apparent or hidden, and both situations can work for or against the writer.
In writing a scene where the villain completely thrashes the hero and does his best to humiliate him, the writer may take a neutral point of view, presenting the scene much like a journalist would. She may take a sympathetic view and slant the scene to draw sympathy for the hero. She may take a hostile view and root for the villain. All of these are valid approaches.
What the writer must beware, though, is trying to present the matter as a journalist but leaking some of her own attitude through. I don't mean Freudian slips, unconscious and unavoidable, but ratherthe failure of the writer to present the scene without moralizing. Moralizing (also preaching or extolling her own points of view) is not necessarily bad as long as the writer is aware of herself, and that the story is aware of it and angles itself through that morality to fulfill the plot, and the reader should also be aware of it. This sounds more complicated than it actually is.
Moralizing that the writer tries to sneak in without the reader noticing crosses the line into vulgarity, not just because it usually makes for bad writing but because it also loses a grip on subtlety and discipline, becoming loose, loud and uncontrolled, and not in a good way. No matter how well an author writes, the story slips, and often slips into sickness and filth.
I know there may be some resistance to words like "filth" when addressing something so arbitrary as morality, but this does not refer to the severity of the content, only the use of it. Example: the scene of a young girl slashing her wrists and watching the blood pour out is entirely appropriate when used in a dramatic piece, when respect is accorded to her anguish and her situation. The same scene because inappropriate and even vulgar when used in a humorous piece where her pain is used as a joke, where she is treated as freakish or as something to laugh at.
Inappropriate or ineffective moralizing, then, may use this girl as a joke, intending to condemn suicide but doing so in a derogatory manner. (Appropriate condemnation might be more subtle and respectful, perhaps treating how she doesn't see what's good in her life, or the problems leading to her actions.) Used in violent scenes, this moralizing can become even more vulgar, bordering on obscene. If the writer uses gore and blood to shock the reader, to lecture through negative details, the blood becomes trite, the gore cheapens, and the actual infliction of injuries becomes excessive, useless and sickening. Any kind of sacrifice a character makes in this situation becomes irrelevant. If the writer uses debilitating injuries as something funny, or even simply to illustrate how bad the villain is, it only serves to show...how bad the villain is. That's it, nothing deeper, and it can be done more effectively through other means without making fun of people (potentially your readers) who may have the same injuries. For instance, it's in poor taste to maliciously make fun of an amputee in real life, and you shouldn't do it in fiction.
There is a fine line between a villain being malicious and the writer being malicious. It may not be intentional, the writer may not be malicious, but intent can be lost in bad or unskilled writing. It's kind of like something being funny when it's not supposed to be. The feeling that a writer approves of the villain's cruelty and lauds that vindictiveness as correct can indeed work in its proper context, in which case you create an anti-hero like Deadpool, but out of the proper context and you'll come across as approving of a serial killer, rooting for the rapist, and approving of generally dishonorable behavior.
Perhaps the best way to imagine this is not in terms of morality but in terms of honor. Both villian and hero can act honorably. Reprehensible crimes can be committed in the name of honor, and a person can be reviled and respected at the same time, "the respected enemy, the distinguished competition." The added layer honor brings to your work can change the feeling of a scene, turn cruelty into cold detachment, evil into twisted psychosis, nobility into bloodsport.
It's the building of layers that will add depth and artistry to your work, and not necessarily honor since that's merely my personal favorite. There are many driving forces for your characters, thousands of motivations for the writer to give them to provide better movement through the plot, better at least than the writer merely wanting to write a story to such a preachy moral like "war is bad," "sinners always get what they deserve," "Vegeta/Relena/Kalutika are bastards and it's good/funny when bad things happen to them."
Ultimately, you're writing a story, not a sermon. If you've written your story well, with deep layers and subtle undercurrents, your readers will come away with different feelings or ideas about your story, which is actually better than everyone finishing just another angst or hurt/comfort fic and moving on to the next, similar, hurt/comfort fic.