Saturday, 10 December 2016
Use of Violence
“There she goes,” I hear you say, “telling us to write a story without any kind of fight or other violence. Completely politically correct and all that rot.”
No, she does not, as it were. For one thing, I think political correctness is a stupid concept, because most people want you to be like that when you have a real complaint or point they don’t want to hear. For another, without violence, there is no conflict in some stories. Without conflict, there’s no real story. The question I try to answer here is not “Do I need violence?” but “What kind of violence should I be using and how much?”
Recently, TV series and movies have made a lot of use of violence against women, mostly rape or other sexually charged violence. Why? It’s the easiest way these days to stir up people, to get the feminists rant about you, to get other people throw their own ideas in the mix, to be heard - to have cheap advertising for what you do.
Yes, there has always been violence against women in novels, TV series, or movies. In some cases, that violence was severe. There’s severe violence against women in the reality as well. There’s severe violence against men, too. For those who advertise being very realistic (and gritty, of course), that is reason enough to incorporate it. It’s hard to say whether the huge amount of violence on the big and the small screen is creating more violence in reality or the other way around. Or neither, which is an often overlooked possibility.
What place does violence have in a story?
It depends, of course, on the type of story you write. A romance has other needs than a mystery story or a thriller or a horror story. The latter three all need a certain amount of violence to work, either on- or off-screen.
Me, I write adventure stories, espionage stories. It’s a given my agent will sooner or later face enemies she needs to get rid of. I’ve introduced her as a woman who can fight, shoot, and has no scruples about killing. (My current project, “Death Dealer,” deals excessively with that part of her character.) It would be extremely bigoted of me to tell anyone not to use any violence at all. I’m not that much of a bigot, so I won’t do that.
What does that mean for a story?
Well, if you use violence in a story, there should be a reason for it. Don’t thrown in a scene about your hero getting beaten up just for the sake of violence. There are a lot of reasons it could have, depending on the type of story and the type of hero you use. Remember what I said about scenes last week - they should do one of their two jobs or both of them.
If your hero is in love with the daughter of a mobster, her father might send out some goons in order to beat the hero up and scare him off. In that case, violence creates a hurdle for the hero to jump, a way to prove his love is strong. If your hero is a genetically-engineered super soldier, she might get into a melee fight with a strange alien enemy and that enemy might reduce her to a heap of broken bones with a twisted spine - forcing her to become something else, to revaluate her life and find another way to defeat those aliens. In both cases, the violence has a reason for being there.
What about overused tropes?
There are a few overused tropes in storytelling and one which is overused and connected to violence is the idea that every strong woman is a rape survivor. Yes, surviving a rape can be a reason to become strong, to fight back. The same, however, goes for neglect, for abuse (non-sexual, like often being beaten by a parent) or trauma. Some survivors of those kinds of violence hide from the world. Some survive it and become strong. Some cast it aside and live on as well as they can. Rape is not the only kind of violence which can create a strong character. Yet, you find it used overly often when female strong characters are concerned. Training or natural inclination can also make for a strong ‘go-getter’ character, for a person who seen the problem and acts, keeps things moving, makes the uncomfortable choices. Those characters can be both male and female.
What about realistic outcomes?
There’s usually no need to realistically describing every outcome of a violent action. However, you should keep things realistic (unless a sci-fi or horror or fantasy setting gives you a good reason not to).
For instance, it’s usually better not to dig out the bullet from a shot with a knife right there and then (and better to leave an arrow or crossbow bolt in, too). You stand a bigger chance to survive such an injury, if the object stays stuck, because it will block the blood from flowing out, thus preventing you from bleeding to death.
In the heat of a fight, especially when there’s a lot of adrenaline involved, chances are smaller injuries won’t be noticed and bigger ones (if not incapacitating) won’t stop the injured person. After the fight, though, there’s a price to pay for fighting with several bullets or broken bones in your body. I gave Jane the berserk, the ability to turn off fear and pain completely, but I also made it clear from the beginning that she is paying for that, by being forced to constantly control the berserk (the rage, as she calls it) and by having all the pain from injuries crashing down on her once she’s out of that state again. Always remember the payoff, that might be even more important than ‘keeping it real’ with injuries all the time.
What about things like torture?
First off, torture usually doesn’t work. You will get information out of most people eventually, when the pain becomes too strong, but what you get usually is what you want to hear (or what the victim thinks you want to hear) and not necessarily what is true. It’s not a moral decision not to break your prisoner’s bones and rip off his flesh to have him spill the beans - it’s a question of pragmatic approaches. Using psychological means usually is more effective. If your hero tortures someone for information, you can use that to your advantage and have him act on information only to find out its wrong.
But what if you have a villain and that villain wants to torture someone? If it fits with your story, go ahead and torture someone. You can find a lot of information online or in history books about the middle ages and the witch hunts. Also look up the inquisition. You will notice that there’s usually an escalation, starting with scaring people (by showing them torture implements), using milder means (like whipping), and escalating to the point of dislocating joints and breaking bones. In the case of the witch hunts, quite some tortures were tailored to the female body, too. Few people have managed not to ‘admit’ to whatever crime they were accused of. In case of witch trials in Europe, that could save their lives (if even torture doesn’t get a person to admit being a witch, God must protect her and she must be innocent). That didn’t necessarily make for a good life afterwards (given the limited medical means), but you can incorporate something like that, too.
At any rate, especially when the villain is torturing the hero, you shouldn’t overdo it. The human body can take a lot of punishment, but in most cases, you will want your hero to survive without lasting damage - unless the damage is an important part of the story, making the hero rearranging his life.
What about violence especially against women?
Difficult question, because that encompasses a lot. As with all other examples up there, it depends on your story. Does your story need it? What does it need? Do you want your female lead in an abusive relationship? Do you want her to live in a world where violence against everyone is common? Do you want her threatened (perhaps with sexual undertones) by the villain for some reason (perhaps a better one than the usual ‘damsel in distress’ trope)?
The quick answer is always the same: if it is necessary for the story, incorporate it. The longer answer is: for general violence, ask yourself whether you’d write a similar scene with the genders exchanged. Would a female villain threaten a male hero the same way? Would a man living in the same world be as much in danger from violence and would it be a similar type?
When it comes to more ‘personal’ violence like it happens in an abusive relationship, then ask yourself what kind of outcome you present to the audience. Does the female lead break away from it? Does she realize it’s not a healthy relationship? Or does she find excuses for everything and ‘stand by her man,’ because that is how you do it? Do you present the relationship in a way that tells people it’s not okay, even if the female lead doesn’t understand it? If you show an abusive relationship in your story, something has to happen about it. You can’t just present it at some point and not get back to it at all.
Don’t treat violence, whether against a man or against a woman, too lightly. Don’t be too casual about it. Incorporate it where it is necessary, but don’t just use it for thrills, for show. Don’t use it just as a cheap way to get talked about. And don’t present it without any consequences. Violence always has consequences and one thing the hero must decide about is whether the goal he uses the violence for is worth the consequences it causes. The villain must be aware of the consequences, too, even though he or she might be more cavalier about them, being the ‘bad one’ in the story. Think about words like ‘collateral’ or ‘minor victims’ or ‘friendly fire.’ (Or ‘friendly stabbing,’ my personal favourite.)
Use violence in your stories where it fits, but never just to have it in there. Same goes for sex, but that is another story entirely.