Violence in real life is brutal, traumatizing and usually over before you have a chance to think or react.
One terrifying night in the summer of 2001, I fled through the dark streets of Skopje, Macedonia just a few seconds ahead of a mob firing automatic weapons. I was a very young and very new journalist who originally came to interview a finance minister and ended up covering a war.
When I was finally able to get indoors, a man who was out of his head with understandable terror at the approach of the mob that was out for the blood of people like him leaped on me and tried to sexually assault me. I fought him off and then had to lie on the floor of a room while bullets whizzed by the open windows and pinged off of the gutters just a few feet away.
A few such experiences have given me an idea of what real violence is like, and the discrepancy between that reality and the way violence is usually portrayed in books and movies is strange.
Violence that is divorced from emotion and real human reactions of shock and trauma feels meaningless and even boring. Writers often believe violent scenes will be the focus of a story and yet readers will skim fight scenes if they aren’t presented with authenticity.
When I read about characters who are combatants and they show little or no reaction to scene after scene of violence, I can’t relate to them. I’ve been beside many real-life combatants and I never saw one unaffected, no matter how tough they were. The reactions of non-combatants are also often far different from reality–either too passive or too unaffected.
Rules of fictional violence
As a reader, I’m not overly sensitive to violence in books, but I usually avoid books that seem to be primarily about violence simply out of disinterest. Readers come in all shades when it comes to a tolerance for violence and emotional intensity. And surprisingly readers who can handle violence sometimes can’t handle emotional intensity and visa versa.
I can’t help using my own books as an example because I know both the process of creating them and the reactions of readers in depth. My books have violence in them—not on every page but when it‘s there it‘s intense. My urban fantasy The Kyrennei Series has even been called a thriller by reviewers, due to suspense and violent content.
Readers react in two different ways to the series. Either they love the story fiercely and write spectacular reviews or they put the book down within the first few chapters and say, “It’s too intense.” That’s okay. No book is for everyone and I don’t want to traumatize sensitive readers.
However, these reader reactions are worth noting for writers. If you do want to include violence in your fiction, there are things you can do to make it more than just “another fight scene.” It can make a book stand out and create die-hard fans, if it connects with authentic human reactions.
I’m not so much concerned with the logistics of a fight scene here. That is another topic, although if you don’t get the technical details right you will kick many readers out of the spell of the story and your authenticity won’t matter. Instead I’m talking about how characters react in anticipation, during a violent scene and afterward.
Here are my guidelines:
- The violence in a good action story isn’t where the greatest suspense is. The suspense is in our emotions about the characters and their emotions.
- Readers enter an informal contract with a writer and part of that contract in popular genre fiction is that you won’t kill the main POV character. Some writers break it well and some badly. But most don’t and readers know it. As a result, there must be other reasons for tension in your story beyond the fear that your main character will die.
- And yet any violence must be integral to the plot. It should not be an aside just stuck in there to titillate. It may seem entertaining at the moment, but it will weaken the overall impact and render a book forgettable.
- Violent scenes should be brutal, even traumatic, and avoided when possible by both the characters and writers alike. Readers should feel a real sense of dread as they read.
- Violent scenes should not be entirely pleasant even for the reader. Making it purely entertaining is a betrayal unless you’re writing comedy.
- Show the emotions of the POV character through physical sensations, such as tightening muscles, breathing differences and physically felt emotional pain. Show the reactions of other characters through their actions, words, silences and movements. Readers need to know how your characters feel but try to avoid simply telling them unless there is a good reason to use direct terms.
As an example of the last point, there is one violent scene in Book Two of The Kyrennei Series (The Fear and the Solace) that gets a lot of comments from readers because of its emotional impact. It is partly what happens to the characters but their physical experience of emotions is key. The POV character is a hardened fighter who has seen a lot of battle and yet for specific reasons he is nearly undone by the incident. The reader can picture the scene clearly using a very few words. And the POV character feels the pain of loss in the palms of his hands.
There are people who preach against violence in fiction because they feel it desensitizes the public and makes real violence more likely. There is some scientific basis for this psychology, if the reactions of characters and readers aren‘t authentic. Even though we know these stories are fiction, the dismissive and titillating way violence is often portrayed builds up a wall between us and images of real violence in the news. We become emotionally divorced from intense things and that disconnect can lead to violence in some people.
On the other hand, there is fiction that connects us more personally to real experience even in fantasy, giving us understanding without having to undergo trauma personally. Such stories need to be told and they are the stories that grip readers for a longer time than just those moments of reading.
A reader recently compared my books to The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The Road is a great book, and at first I was simply pleased to be favorably compared to an awesome author. But then I realized that The Road is categorized as literary fiction, not popular dystopia. I’d been categorizing my books with things like The Hunger Games.
Have I got the wrong genre?
I looked more closely at my first book The Soul and the Seed to understand why it would be compared to The Road?
They are in wildly different settings after all. The Road is in a grim future, a destroyed world where people resort to cannibalism to survive. The Soul and the Seed is set solidly in the present.
That’s right. I made today’s society into a dystopia. There’s a fantasy twist that highlights the socially harsh and physically unsustainable elements of today’s world. So it can’t be the setting that the two have in common and there isn’t much fantasy in The Road.
The similarity is more in the way that violence, despair and emotion are dealt with. Much of the violence in popular urban fantasy and dystopia is “justified” and momentarily entertaining.
And the violence in my books isn’t as much fun in the moment. It’s too real and it creates huge suspense in the rest of the story.
Both The Kyrennei Series and The Road are hard and desperate stories. It’s fiction—even fantasy or science fiction—on the literal plane. And yet there is a deeper level of reality where these stories ring true. And that truth has to be told. Even when it’s hard.
To the readers, it’s partly the authentic spirit of the characters that keeps us glued to the page. It’s also the burning questions we carry inside whether we read this sort of thing or not.
How do we live with despair? How do you go on through anything, no matter how terrible and gut-wrenching? Is hope just wishful thinking?
Authentic answers to these questions have always come hard. But they can be answered in bits and pieces–in the gentleness of a person forced to fight, in the need that binds the strong and the weak together, in the fact that you still seek life and comfort amid horrific circumstances, in the play of children in wartime or in the courage of those who know they cannot win.
If you don’t have the darkness–real darkness–true and desperate, how can you have a story about hope?
I wanted to write about these questions, but I also wanted to do it in a gripping story without the tiniest whiff of moralistic preaching. That is what leads to the use of intense and sometimes graphic violence. It is part of the darkness against which we set hope. And of course, it cannot be the only darkness in this kind of story. Fear itself becomes a great darkness as are the less-violent–though no-less-terrible–ways in which people can degrade one another. And those are true to our real-world experience as well. When you can show a story that embraces these things and still maintains hope, the interest of readers rises.
Such a story is there to sweep us away to another reality while simultaneously making us question our own world, to terrify us and to make us feel alive.
How much violence?
There is no exact measure of violence that is too much violence. It does depend on genre and the target audience and it‘s worth studying the conventions in your specific area. And pay attention not just to the amount of violence and graphic content expected but to the emotional intensity around it, because readers differ on their tastes in that as well.
The first book in my series, The Soul and the Seed, has three or four incidents of violence in it, depending on if you count hearing violence at a distance or not. That’s not a peaceful book. But it isn’t that much violence when compared to a book like The Hunger Games, which is (after the intro scenes) essentially a sequence of violent incidents. And the violence in Mockingjay read like the description of a video game.
And yet readers who have read both The Hunger Games and The Soul and the Seed usually say the latter is scarier and more intense. People who can read about teenagers slaughtering each other in The Hunger Games sometimes find The Kyrennei Series to be “too much.”
It has to do with how the violence is presented, not how much there technically is. There are books such as Cutting for Stone that would be too intense for many and contain virtually no violence.
But the fact remains that, however the author does it, if you want the reader to feel hope deeply, you must make the reader feel pain deeply as well. That is what The Kyrennei Series does. It goes for real hope. Hope that doesn’t take “no” for an answer. And it is wrenching to get there.
Truth in advertising
The only remaining problem is with telling readers what to expect. Authors want to give fair warning about the violence and intensity of a story. But if violence isn’t at the core of a story like The Soul and the Seed, there is a bind. While some readers of The Hunger Games will find it too intense, there are other readers who often find modern fiction too violent who will like The Soul and the Seed better. Which is more “violent” is a question dependent of the emotion the reader is prepared to handle.
That’s why this is one of the issues to give special attention to in writing a blurb. If I write a description that is primarily about the violence of the story, the wrong type of readers are often attracted because this isn’t a story that will satisfy those with a thirst for constant, low intensity violence. That could result in some negative reviews. And readers who will value the story are usually looking for something else in a description. The best I can do is to write a description that is true to the nature of the book and drop a clear note about graphic violence at some point.
This is a topic with many perspectives and little that is objective gospel. What are your experiences with violence in fiction as a reader or as a writer? Can you relate to the problem of reading a book with only a little violence that is nonetheless almost too intense? What is your own personal line about how much violence is too much?
Arie Farnam is an international journalist and urban documentary filmmaker turned fantasy writer living in Prague. When not writing, she practices urban homesteading, chases her two awesome children and concocts herbal medicines. She is also the author of The Kyrennei Series (Book One is The Soul and the Seed), which presents a frighteningly realistic–yet fantastical–alternative take on contemporary international affairs and social dynamics. Combine the forgotten existence of a magical nonhuman race and a clandestine telepathic power cult with the emotional impact of literary fiction and you get an electrifying tale. She currently has a special offer going where you can join her hearth-side email circle, where readers links to her blog posts, a “virtual cup of tea“ and a free ebook from her series. Her website and blog is at www.ariefarnam.com.