Distinguishing a violent reality from violent fiction

Posted: April 17, 2013 in General, Writing
Tags: , ,

Tragedy seems to be striking us – as people, not just as Americans – more and more each day. Or maybe we’re just becoming more aware of it considering how connected everyone is to the world these days.

There’s a lot to be said about the Boston bombings. There’s a lot that has already been said. But words, in my opinion, don’t console people in this type of situation. Therefore, all I will say is that I was as surprised, shocked, horrified, and saddened as everyone else. And leave it at that. I’ll be following the news and keeping everyone in my thoughts. There’s no point in turning this post into another memorial for the victims. My philosophy is to mourn and move on as best we can, but to also never forget. The best of life comes from those moments you don’t think you can get through. And only by moving on can we get to that point.

Young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered

Young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered

So, the topic today, while still related, is about something else. It’s about the fact that it’s important for us to realize fictional violence is a completely separate matter from real violence.

Chuck Wendig, writer and blogger extraordinaire, wrote a post titled “A thrown fist always hurts the hand” that really got me thinking about this, and although he took the words right out of my mouth (and probably used them better than I would have), I thought I’d add my voice to the air.

In particular, it was this passage that struck me:

Someone then responded on Twitter with an interesting question of whether or not I feel bad about the violence in my fiction, and my thought then and now was, well, that’s a bit different, isn’t it? Violence in fiction is, first of all, fiction. But it’s generally expected — we read a crime novel or a horror novel, that violence is usually part and parcel. And in the realm of fiction, violence can be framed by context and informed by consequence.

One of the writers I edit for ran into a similar situation in one of his novels. There was a section where several kids were gunned down. He wrote it before Sandy Hook, but he e-mailed me after the tragedy and asked my opinion. “Should I take that section out?”

My answer was a pretty resounding no. It might be a harsh reality, but if we took out parts of our story every time something happened, we’d have nothing left of our book. Art imitates life, and so readers have to expect violence is going to crop up in a lot of novels. Every genre and every category, except maybe picture books for children, will have violence.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be careful. There’s definitely a possibility of stepping over a line. But feeling guilty about putting violence in your story is like feeling guilty for putting romance in your story. Will everyone enjoy it? Maybe not. Is it necessary? It depends on the story. Will it offend some people? Oh, absolutely.

Beatrix Kiddo

Beatrix Kiddo avenging her near death

But here’s the thing. Heroes are born of tragedy and pain. Violence in stories serve to bring someone down so low that you’re unsure they’ll ever be able to make it out of their hell hole. And then when they do, it makes it more fulfilling. Static characters are boring. Having to deal with all that suffering makes readers empathize with the characters and consequently cheer for them when they finally make it to the top.

One final thought: violence in fiction does not mean the author supports violence in reality. I guess this is the point I’m really trying to drive home. Just because a writer has a character that tortures people for information doesn’t mean they believe in torture. Just because their hero goes around killing criminals doesn’t mean they think real life people should go around taking justice into their own hands.

That’s why it’s called fiction.

Violence in fiction is a means to an end. It has a calculated purpose, and that is to make the character change and evolve and ultimately end up being the best version of themselves by the end of the book. Readers and writers alike should realize that fictional violence and real violence are two completely different things. If you’re uncomfortable with violence in your books, that’s completely fine. Find another book, another genre, or another writer. There’s no harm in that. But making someone feel ashamed of the story they’ve written because it’s gritty and realistic is out of line. It truly has nothing to do with real world events, and I hope no one out there bends themselves over backwards to please people who, frankly, will probably never be pleased no matter what you do.

What do you think?

  1. EM Castellan says:

    Some people have it backward, it seems: it’s because there’s violence in the real world that there’s violence in fiction, not the other way around. The “Earshot” episode in Buffy is a great example of that: an episode about a school shooting that was written 3 weeks before Colombine.

    • Karen Rought says:

      It’s sad that people look to authors and point fingers at them for things like this when they really should be looking elsewhere. There are far more horrible and disturbing people in this world than the ones that choose to write scenes with violence in them. Why waste time on someone who clearly does not fall into the same category as those other people?

  2. I think you’re absolutely spot on here. Especially the point about portrayal of violence not equating to advocacy on the part of the author. I absolutely agree! When I was a student, it was impossible to be interested in what, in effect, amounts to a key part of the human condition – anybody who was interested, for instance, in military history was regarded as an advocate of war and, therefore, a lesser being who had to be hated and discriminated against as punishment for their evil bigotry. Perception of hypocrisy wasn’t a strong suit in NZ’s university arts faculties when I was there… 🙂

    The nature of violence, and of how we suffer from it – along with our efforts to perceive and control it – is something I have put an awful lot of thought into over the last few years, partly because I wrote a book on the psychology of military heroism in 2006. You are so right to say that ‘heroes are born of tragedy and pain’! They are – and for real. I used the NZ experience as a case study, but of course we Kiwis are merely a typical sample, and to understand it I looked at why it was that people behave as ‘heroes’ in war – what constitutes ‘heroism’, how we perceive it, how it is popularly identified, and how that perception has changed over time. Really it was about the wider human condition. And it had little to do with the glorification of violence that constitutes Hollywood – something that, I think, tells us a lot about the human condition in many ways. Certainly about the expectation of modern audiences.

    (The book had a sad end – my publisher, Reed NZ, was swallowed by Penguin just a the book was released – it received no publicity, no promotion. It still sold well enough. Maybe readers identified with it. Out of print now, but I hope to get it re-published in due course.)

    • Karen Rought says:

      I’ve run into that issue of people thinking there must be something wrong with me because I’m fascinated by WWII history. That I must *like* Hitler and what he did to all those people. It’s just ridiculous. It does not equate, and I don’t know why people feel they have to connect one to the other.

      Good luck with your book. It sounds fascinating. I’d like to read it if you get a chance to get it reprinted.

  3. Better in fiction than in reality that’s what I always say 😀

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