Last week, A. J. wrote a post on action scenes, and the ensuing comments-conversation got me thinking about the nature of violence (and an essential book on the subject). Oftentimes we use violence in our stories as a method of creating action, excitement, intensity, and thrills. We will use it to forward plots or solve plot holes. The big chase, the final confrontation between hero and villain, the surprise death at the end of the epic battle are all examples that pop-up in many of our favorite novels. It’s even been suggested here at MW that one way to aid a troubled plot is to kill a character. We also use violence to evoke sympathy. My old theater professor used to say that making an audience cry was easy — just take a couple kids out on stage and beat them. This is because we can empathize with pain.
There are many reasons we use violence as a way to communicate in writing. Like dialogue, explosions of violence are immediate — they suck your reader into the moment with little effort and great reward. Violence is universal. Every reader has experienced violence or, at the least, has experienced the desire to commit violence. And violence is visceral. It is charged with emotional impact.
In fact, if we include verbal abuse as a form of violence, then you would be hard-pressed to name any written work that does not have some sort of violence in it. Whether tied into our survival instinct or just an ugly aspect of our human nature, we are violent beings surrounded by violent beings. Even those of us who reject violence and attempt to live a life of peace, do so only by finding ways to live with, quell, or muzzle our violent tendencies. So, the real question for me is not whether to use violence in my stories, but rather how will my characters react to the violent situations I place them in and what do I want to say about violence.
Every attitude you could possibly have regarding this subject has been explored or touched upon in some story or book somewhere at some time. From pragmatic war stories to regret-filled antiwar stories, from cool hardened killers to remorseful spies, from bloodthirsty sociopaths to abused shut-ins — you name it, somebody’s done it. So just as every story has been written before, it becomes the job of the author to find a new way to express these stories.
To that end, I strongly recommend the book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. I first came across this book many years ago when doing research for a military science fiction novel. It explores many aspects of violence and its affect on the human psyche. Being a military man, he spends considerable time detailing and contrasting the training techniques used in World War II and Vietnam as well as the long-term effects these techniques had upon the soldiers. He discusses several classic psychological experiments done on our willingness to harm others depending on how much responsibility is connected to our acts and delves into how our daily lifestyles can also contribute to our level of acceptance when it comes to violence. Whether or not you agree with Grossman’s conclusions, you will find a wealth of thought-provoking ideas on the subject that will help you create fuller characters that react in believable ways when confronted with violent situations. For me, this is one of the essential books on my writer’s shelf — right there with the dictionary and thesaurus.