Violence that means something

I read Adam Callaway’s article on violence in sf/f yesterday. (Word of caution: for whatever reason, that site slowed my computer waaayyyy dooowwwnn every time I loaded it). The article was about how very few fantasy/sci fi stories solve problems with cleverness rather than violence. In addition, few sf/f stories explore the real life consequences of violence. Violence is used as a tool to get things done, and it rarely has far reaching side effects.

The oxymoronic phrase “realism in fantasy” is often used to justify copious amounts of violence in a work. Okay. As much of a problem as I have with that phrase, I’ll indulge it. Use violence to make a work seem “more real.” For this to remain true, the violence needs to be visceral, but tempered by reaction and emotion. If violence occurs, it should be explored.

It’s an interesting idea. I remember when I was reading the Hunger Games trilogy, I was impressed with how Suzanne Collins explored how the violence wasn’t just a passing thing that Katniss quickly got over. This was reflected in everything from the immediate consequences–at one point, she was too close to an explosion, so it burst her eardrums and gave her vertigo–to the far reaching ones, like PTSD. This treatment of violence was refreshing in a genre that usually has protagonists grimace and grit their teeth and move on.

I’m not opposed to violence in fiction. I write a lot of violence, and I don’t have a taste for stories that shy away from violence when the plot needs it (‘when the plot needs it’ is key there–I’m equally put off by stories that are violent for the sake of violence). Still, it can be really tiring to read story after story where the protagonist is battered around from start to finish until finally they manage to batter back and win the day.

I recently read Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 and Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds. Both very good books with strong female protagonists. Both also very violent. I didn’t think that the violence was unnecessary in either of these stories, but not long after I finished them, I downloaded the sample of Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls and after a few pages thought “Dear god, I can’t go through this AGAIN.” (Side note: I was mainly interested in The Shining Girls because I mistakenly thought it was about  female serial killers. SOMEONE WRITE THIS PLEASE.) The thought of reading yet another book about an antagonist pursuing a series of violent attacks until someone gets him in the end was just exhausting. I will read The Shining Girls at some point (and for all I know, I might have been completely wrong about what it’s about), but I need to recover first.

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is obviously the most well known violent series going on right now. It’s brutal, and it leads to a sort of arms-race in the book where the truly terrible characters have to do even worse things to distinguish themselves from just the run-of-the-mill terrible characters. I remember one scene in one of the books (trying to avoid spoilers) where a woman who had previously been introduced was later mentioned off-handedly as having been locked in a tower until she starved to death, and her corpse was found without fingers because she had eaten them all for sustenance. In a world where it’s not particularly outré to behead someone and stick it on a spike, you have to go out of your way to be noticeably sadistic. Does that make for a good story? It makes for a memorable one, certainly. But it runs the risk of giving the readers violence fatigue. By the end of A Dance with Dragons, I was bitterly thinking that GRRM was going to have to introduce a few more likable characters because they were running a little thin on the ground.

The Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant (Feed, Deadline, and Blackout) uses violence sparingly and effectively. Zombie stories can be tediously violent, but violence is most powerful when it’s used thriftily. Unlike GRRM, who needs to keep escalating to make us feel the same sort of horror, Grant uses a few small tragedies to give the story its most compelling scenes. The tragedies in the first book have aftershocks all the way through to the third.

Not every story needs to end with the main character curled in the fetal position, having flashbacks (although if you want to go that route, here is a lovely series on traumatizing your protagonist). Still, if your story does have violence, it should touch the characters personally.

I guess the point that’s been buried under all these examples is that violence in itself isn’t a bad thing to have in a book, but it shouldn’t be there just to be there. It–like every other part of a novel, really–should be there because it serves an intrinsic purpose.

In other news:

Chuck Wendig and Delilah Dawson both have posts on how and why to diversify the books you read.

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