Writing Violence


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.


22 comments to Writing Violence

  • Thanks Stuart. I’ll check it out.

  • Good book recommendation. I’ve never read On Killing myself, but several people have praised and/or recommended the book to me.

    I often have trouble with some stories believing the characters’ reactions to violence, so I think that a lot of authors could use some good research and discussion on the issue.

  • There was a series some years ago, the Angelique series, set in the 1800s. Angelique was a gorgeous blonde and in every single book she was raped at least once. (I counted. In one book she was raped 11 times by English gents and cutpurses.) I hated the series, but I forced myself to read several books as a teaching tool.

    I used to do that. I’d study series that sold, when I didn’t understand *why* they could possibly sell, trying to find the underlying attraction. (The Dirk Pitt series was another study series. I understood that one. It was the 007 attraction. Men *want* to believe that they can face any situation, violent or otherwise, with aplomb, win every single time, and have women fall all over themselves begging for casual sex. Women want to believe that they can be such a man’s one and only. The Tiger Woods syndrome, I guess. But back to Angelique.)

    In book 4 (I think) she was raped by an entire tribe of African headhunters. Her emotional reaction to all that horrible, repeated violence in every single book was … nothing. She would withdraw, be quiet for a day or two as her *body* healed, and would come back and be fine. No mental / emotional changes at all. I stopped reading after the tribal rape book. A character’s reaction to violence has to have at least one foot in reality.

    I’ll look up the suggested book, Stuart. It sounds a lot more useful than the Angelique books.

  • AJ — You’re welcome.

    Atsiko — I happen to stumble upon the book way back when, but since then have found that it is quite well known in regards to the subject.

    Faith — Yeesh. I never heard of that series and now I have no plans to read it. When it comes to 007, I seem to recall in the early novels, sometimes Bond would throw up after killing somebody, he found it so revolting. Later, and especially in the movies, he is the cool bastard you describe. However, I was never a big Bond fan, so I may be confusing this with a different character. You also mentioned Dirk Pitt and that made me think also of The Executioner series. In fact, it seems frighteningly easy to find characters that kill with a casual attitude.

  • Emily

    I liked the way Joss Whedon did violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over time, Buffy got more and more detached from her family and friends because she spent a lot of time killing things. Granted, they were monsters/demons, which does make it easier. There was one ep. where she thought she killed a person (turned out her was a crazed robot) but the huge emotional impact was pretty impressive. Faith also ended up killing a human, too. Eventually she chose to go to jail for it, as a kind of healing pennance. While Buffy was certainly fantastical, it did have moments where it dealt well with violecne.

    In my WIP, my main character is having a hard time dealing with a violent act she committed–that’s the emotional conflict in the plot. (The physical conflict is something else). I like exploring the nature of characters who’ve done violence, as well as those who’ve had violence done to them.

  • I think at least some measure of violence is required to make your story real because Life is violent. If there was no violence, then people would not believe your story. Even Chilren’s stories have some measure of violence in them (Mother Goose anyone?).

  • Emily — I’m a Buffy fan, so I’m right there with you. A key thing with Buffy that may touch on your WIP is that Whedon never dwells too long on the violence. It happens, she deals with it. In my on WIP, I have similar issues. My main character is a violent woman (think Conan the Barbarian meets Buffy) who has to come to terms with her actions. She has several ways to deal with it, but I worry about spending too much time having her ponder these things. I think that’s the opposite end from the 007 callous approach. Most readers know wanton killing is bad (even as they thrill to it in the story), so they don’t want a lecture. I find Whedon gets the balance of this mostly right — of course, a television script and a novel are different things, but it may help us to look there.

    Mark — I agree. I find children’s stories, religious tales, and ancient myths to be some of the most violent stories ever written.

  • Thanks, Stuart for the post and On Killing. I’m going to check that out.

    My first novel was about a former assassin looking for redemption and trying to change, but harassed by his former guild and minions of the netherworld. When he was forced to kill a human, I made a bigger deal of it than when he fought the shadowy creatures.

    I think people react differently to violence based on their upbringing and experience. I read “Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist” and it provided an interesting view of those who seem more comfortable comiting violence and haven’t been trained for it. http://tinyurl.com/yc7g3g4

  • NewGuyDave — Thanks for the article link. I’ll be sure to check it out. I do find that those who have been trained (like soldiers, for example) have more respect for the acts they commit. In a smaller way, it’s like martial arts training. I’ve found that many students (myself included) were more likely to be in a fight BEFORE they started studying martial arts. Once I knew what I was doing, my desire to fight a bully dropped significantly. I know what a real fight is and what I’ve been trained to do — that knowledge lets me put up with a lot of guff without feeling the need to fight back. If the bully takes a swing at me, I’m confident I can put up a good defense, but again, the knowledge and training actually reduces the violence in my life.

  • Stuart, thanks for the blog post. I think this is a great continuation from the action/climax scenes one. There are barely any climax points without some sort of violence… (of course that’s in the books I read :D) I will check that book out, it sounds like it can definitely come in handy.

  • Well, this one got me thinking, not only about my WIP (which I need to revise a bit….) but about the stuff I write in general. I am not at all a violent person. I have [knocking on wood] experienced very, very little violence in my life. And yet, my books are bloody. They’re filled with killings, battles, beatings, torture, etc. Are they therapy? Do I write to keep myself peaceful? I do my best to make my characters think about the harm they do — even those who might be considered “villains” have some response to the damage they do. But still, I wonder where this comes from.

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Stuart. And thanks for giving me something to think about.

  • @ David. Or do you write violence into your stories because it’s woven into the nature of humanity and our histories?

  • I remember those “Angelique” books. I think I might have read one, but it was so long ago I’m not sure. I do remember when I went through my heavy romance-reading period, back in the mid-70’s, that rape seemed to be the popular romance trope. *shudder*

    Stuart said, I’ve found that many students (myself included) were more likely to be in a fight BEFORE they started studying martial arts.

    I’ve heard the same sentiment from a number of military folks, too. Even after they’re not serving, they steer clear of violence because they really understand it.

  • Yeah, Dave, probably. But, without sounding too full of myself, my violent scenes are good. My torture scenes in Rules of Ascension were some of the best writing I’ve ever done. That bothers me a little.

  • Emily

    David> maybe you’re just really good at empathy, so in a torture scene where empathy is running high you nailed it? I sometimes write nasty, evil characters well and am delighted by them. Then I feel guilty afterwards. Sometimes it is hard to make the protagonist as interesting as the villain. They have all this moral restraint and stuff.

  • David — I, too, write a hefty share of violence in my stories. On one level, I think there is a catharsis that can occur for readers (and writers) in this kind of thing. On another level, there is also some wish-fulfillment in seeing somebody truly evil get beat to a pulp. Ultimately, I’m not advocating less violence in our writing, so much as suggesting that a greater understanding of violence can add depth to characters and enrich plots.

    Emily — In a similar vein, it took me awhile to recognize that I was being too nice to my protagonists. Once I learned to really torture my heroes, I found my story-telling improved.

  • heteromeles

    This is another interesting discussion, and I’m debating whether my significant other would be happy about seeing a book about killing pop up on the bedside table, next to the book on the publishing industry…:D

    David, I haven’t read Rules of Ascension, but I think there’s an interesting question there: what does “good” mean? Entertaining and well-written? This isn’t a quarrel with your evaluation of your work, but the point is that you wrote a work of fantasy for others’ enjoyment, not a precise technical account of what happened at Abu Ghraib. Some of the details matter, some do not, but it’s a piece of entertainment, and while it may sound callous, I think we need to remember that, at the end of the day, we’re entertainers.

    On part that we’re not addressing is what happens before and after violence. While I haven’t read On Killing, I have read some of Keegan’s work on the same subject. Most people need to be taught to kill other humans, and most people have trouble afterwords, whether it’s PTSD or something more mild. These are important in the context of novel writing. Some basic questions I’ve been struggling with are: how realistic do I want the violence to be? (my answer was not that much). As part of that realism, are the violent people in your book the 10% who have no problem, or the 90% that need to be trained and do have problems? Does the training get shown? And, most crucially, what happens afterward?
    In a fantasy setting, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to set up cultural systems for dealing with the effects of violence, whether it’s an Enemy Way like the Navajo, a ritual purification a la the Ancient Greeks, or something else.

  • Right, Stuart, I agree. H, when I said that I thought I had written those scenes well, I meant I felt they were effective from an artistic standpoint. I think that the torture made my readers squirm and flinch and wince, and my character’s suffering made a person who was, until then, not very sympathetic, more sympathetic.

  • Tom

    David mentioned how he is so non violent, but there is so much violence in his stories. That reminded me of a conference I attended way back in the 80’s. I can’t recall who said it, but here it is in a nutshell:

    He claimed you could tell a lot about a writer from what they put in their stories. Non violent people put lots of violence in their stories. If someone’s characters are getting lots and lots of sex, the writer is NOT. If you long for home, you are a gypsy. If you long to travel, you are a homebody. Basically, everyone secretly dreams of what they are not. I have found that is true to some extent for me, but then I wonder if I’m reacting to what he said, or just reading aspects of my life to make it fit with what he said.

    Have I muddied the waters enough?

  • Tom — That’s the whole wish-fulfillment view, and to some extent it lines up with the truth. However, I think it’s a mistake to read in to authors this way. For every author this view proves true, there are many that it is false. Some writers put violence in there stories because they understand it well. Some erotica authors enjoy the genre because they are highly sexual people — it’s what they know. And many armchair traveler novels are written by well-traveled people who want to share their experiences with readers. In fact, the whole paraphrased idea you wrote about might be more poignantly correct if stated about readers.

    Or, perhaps, just maybe, stories we write and read appeal to both sides of our attitudes. The violent and non-violent alike can read, write, and enjoy violence in stories provided it speaks to them as individuals. Ditto for sexuality, travel, and what-not.

    Does that clear the waters at all? 🙂

  • heteromeles

    Gotta love Earthsea. While I would not call them totally non-violent, those stories are not resolved by violence, nor are the climaxes (for most of them) violent. But then again, Ms. LeGuin did that very deliberately.

    I think that learning about violence is pretty important for human beings, especially if they are non-violent. This is not to make peaceful people violent, but to help them be more compassionate and/or empathetic towards their fellow human beings. As storytellers, I would say that compassion is one of our central tools. If we can’t get inside their heads, it ain’t gonna come out of our keyboards. Whoever *they* are.

  • H — You bring up an excellent distinction. Just because stories have violence in them, doesn’t mean the ultimate climax/solution to the problem has to be violent. Asimov’s SF was always like this. Violence existed but it was thinking and science that saved the day. Which is why, btw, the Will Smith movie “I, Robot” failed for me — they totally missed (or willfully ignored) this major point of those short stories. They chose instead to blow stuff up, shoot robots, and duke it out to solve all their problems.