Some post-apocalyptic stories involve people not being very nice to each other.
Working on Chapter 6 of The Sky Below last night I got to thinking about the role of violence in fiction.
I tend to take the Agatha Christie approach to violence typically. She wrote something like 70+ murder mysteries but very rarely was any blood spilled (usually poisonings and the like). Ironically, one of her more violent (and bloody) books was Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.
But different works demand certain circumstances. Much as I’d love to believe that everybody would be decent in the face of the world-wide disaster, there’s too much evidence to the contrary. And truthfully I’m not sure how many of you would want to read a book about everyone being nice to each other all the time. I am not writing the My Little Pony of disaster narratives.
When thinking about how violence is portrayed in the story you have to think about three audiences. The reader, the writer and the character.
Most readers have a threshold for violence they will tolerate. This is on a sliding scale, of course, based in part on exposure, context within the story, and particular hot-buttons. A more whimsical example of this is a guy being hit in the groin. To at least 50% of your readers, that might trigger a visceral reaction (i.e. ‘that’s gotta hurt’). My general rule here is to not dwell, to be economic but clear with words and not to describe things about how the blood is spurting, the bone is breaking through the skin, the colors of bruises, etc.
Which brings me to the writer. Writing violence requires thinking about violence, and to a certain degree, imagining or reenacting violence in some small way. Case in point, I was trying to figure out where would be the best place on the forearm to strike to break someone’s grip, and admittedly I hit my own arm a couple of times just to get a sense of it (no bruises, just checked). Occasionally I act out a maneuver in a fight just to get a sense of whether it is physically possible. Even writing this I worry that some of you might be freaked out by this notion. Let me assure you I’m a very peaceful guy. I don’t particularly like violence, I just feel occasionally it’s narratively necessary.
Writing about violence from the character’s perspective requires a sense of that character’s reaction to violence. Some are appalled, react physically, vomiting, etc. Some react coldly. Some react cruelly, and some just fly off the handle while others are pragmatic. Getting a sense of a character’s capacity to inflict and observe violence helps to make those scenes real and not glorified. A character can, and sometimes should, have a viewpoint that conflicts with the writer’s and good authors let the reader decide who is right.
How do you write about violence or do you avoid it altogether?