The Anatomy and Value of Fictional Violence
Two months ago, Sherwood Smith and Steve Gould both urged me to read Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, and I am quite glad that I took their advice. The Sharpe stories are historical fiction, set during the Napoleonic wars and featuring the adventures of a British Rifleman Richard Sharpe. I’m only about a quarter of the way through the series at this point, but the books have made me wonder about the uses and techniques of violence in fiction. And since the genre I write most in (fantasy and science fiction) often features some level of violence, the question is philosophically and practically pretty relevant to me.
The Purpose of Fictional Violence
Like everything else in fiction, violence is a tool through which we can manipulate the reader’s emotional, mental, and physiological state. Most stories will use it as an accelerant: throw in a fight scene to boost the reader’s heartbeat, menace the hero to ratchet up tension, describe a murder in detail to make the reader uncomfortable. There is a natural sympathetic response when we read violence: our neurons fire in the same sensory areas as the hero’s, our heart rate goes up, our muscles tense. This is natural, and is part of the process by which we draw the reader into the story.
But violence can serve as more than an accelerant. Depending on how violent action is portrayed, we can use it to slow the story’s pace. Cornwell shows us – in scene after scene – how the butchery of war becomes a hard, bitter slog. He takes multiple paragraphs to describe a movement that would take seconds in reality, stretching the reader’s perception of time. And then he does it again. And again. And again, desensitizing us to the horrors of war just as if we were there fighting it.
In many stories, violence is the knife-edge on which the stakes balance. Conflict, and the themes it explores, are crystallized through violent action. A battle makes the political or philosophical conflict concrete, personalizes it, reduces it to an accessible or understandable simulacrum. A fight brings the emotional consequences home to the reader by playing on their sensory perceptions. While not all stories need violence to do so, violent action does make the stakes real in a way that reasoned discourse cannot.
So how does the tool work?
The Components of Fictional Violence
I keep returning to the Scribblies’ dictum that POV fixes everything, and that’s for damn good reason. The most important component in fictional violence is point-of-view, and more specifically the focus which that POV imbues.
Effective violence relies on the intersection of the reader’s imagination with their sensory perception of the events portrayed in the story. The reader might never have been in battle, but their imagination can supply the smell of smoke, the sound of screams, and the coppery taste of blood. The choice of how to direct the reader’s attention, which details to supply them with, which senses to evoke is one that relies on POV and focus.
Consider a bare-knuckles boxing match told from three different perspectives: one is a technical blow-by-blow in a newspaper article, the other is a sports announcer sitting ringside, and the third is one of the fighters (forgive me for the crudity of these experiments – I just want to illustrate a point):
|Mondelo countered Flannery’s jab with a hard right hook, and Flannery went down for the count.|
|Like a cat, Flannery shoots a right jab. But Mondelo just takes it! Takes it on the cheek, and doesn’t even blink. Mondelo’s right hooks around, moving like a meat hammer. Spins the Irishman clean around. He’s stumbling. He’s stepping away. Mondelo’s not touching him – he ain’t moving. The crowd’s screaming, going wild for Mondelo to finish up. Flannery folds up. The ref goes down. Mondelo’s just standing there. And that’s the count! Flannery is out!|
|Flannery moved so fast, Mondelo never even saw the jab. It was like he’d blinked, just the one surprised blink, and then the blood streamed down his cheek like a salty tear. But his fist was already moving, and from this distance there was no way even fast Flannery could recover. Mondelo’s right crashed into his jaw, and though he couldn’t hear the Mick’s teeth crunch above the crowd’s screams, he felt them crumble up his hand and through his wrist, past his elbow and all the way to where his own face throbbed. Flannery spun around, flecks of bone and blood staining the ref’s shirt. Mondelo didn’t move. Let him go down, he thought. Let him go down, I don’t have another one like that. He couldn’t loosen his fist, like all of his bloodied knuckles had been fused together. Please, God, let him go down. The ring shuddered as the Irishman hit the mat. Below the haze, Mondelo could see the ref counting. The crowd was screaming. And his fist still wouldn’t open.|
Each of these – admittedly rough – passages describes the same violent events, but the sensory details provided in each vary tremendously. It is the POV that informs which sensory details receive the focus, and it is in turn the focus which affects the reader.
Cornwell’s Sharpe series is told from a nearly omniscient point-of-view, which gives him the ability to narrow and widen his focus throughout the unfolding action of a particular battle. At one point, he might be giving us the view from ten thousand feet, describing the movements of entire companies on the field of battle. And in the next paragraph, he may have zoomed in to show us the brutal disembowelment of a cavalry man on the line. Consider the following (from Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Rifles):
Those Riflemen began to fall. The centre of the square soon became a charnel house of wounded men, of blood, screams and hopeless prayer. The rain was stinging harder, wetting the rifle pans, but enough black powder fired to spit bullets at the enemy who, crouched in the grass, made small and elusive targets.
The two mounted squadrons had wheeled away to the west, and now reformed. They would charge along the line of the road, and the frozen steel of their heavy straight swords would burn like fire when it cut home. Except, so long as the Riflemen stayed together, and so long as their unbroken ranks bristled with the pale blades, the horsemen could not hurt them. But the enemy carbines were taking a fearful toll. And when enough Riflemen had fallen the cavalry charge would split the weakened square with the ease of a sword shattering a rotten apple.
Dunnett knew it, and he looked for salvation. He saw it in the low cloud which misted the hillside just two hundred yards to the north. If the greenjackets could climb into the obscuring shroud of those clouds, they would be safe. He hesitated over the decision. A Sergeant fell back into the square, killed clean by a ball through his brain. A Rifleman screamed as a bullet struck his lower belly. Another, shot in the foot, checked his sob of pain as he methodically loaded his weapon.
As the above passage shows, the omniscient POV gives Cornwell great descriptive flexibility, as it allows him to communicate information which his protagonist (Richard Sharpe) does not necessarily have. But while an omniscient POV maximizes our flexibility of focus, it carries with a trade-off in the other essential component of effective violence: the level of emotional engagement.
Violence without emotional context is useless. By giving the reader an understanding of the character’s perception of the violence, and of the character’s investment in its outcome, we make it possible for the reader to have an emotional response. The emotional context for violence is an amalgamation of everything we have learned about the characters involved, and about our perceptions of those characters.
Obituaries – which as a matter of taste and human decency, rarely depict violence – are a great example of this principle at work. The purpose of an obituary is to communicate that a person has died. But that could be communicated in one sentence: “Person X died yesterday.” Or, if we wanted to provide more factual detail, we might say “Person X died in a car crash yesterday.” But that’s not how obits are structured. They give us the facts, but they also humanize the person involved. They imply an emotional context for the event, at the least by mentioning the survivors.
Emotional context works the same way in violence. Violence where the characters lack an emotional stake fails to move the reader. It makes the violence clinical, which at times might be the point (a lot of serial killer thrillers do this), where the absence of emotional context itself becomes its own equivalent.
However, there is a difference between painstakingly writing a scene of emotionless, clinical violence (as in Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter), and writing one where the emotional context is haphazard. This is one of the complaints I tend to have about some gritty fantasy, in particular some of Joe Abercombie’s or K.J. Parker’s work.
While technically their portrayals of violence are fine, that violence is frequently devoid of emotional investment. The point-of-view is close, developing an expectation that the focus and depiction of violence will be visceral to the characters involved. But when that portrayal lacks an emotional dimension: the characters are often shown to have emotions, but those emotions somehow vanish when the violence begins. When those perspective characters’ emotions are kept at arms’ length, the reader’s emotions are likewise held at bay, weakening the effect the violence can otherwise produce.
Language and Violence
The language which we use to portray violence also carries significant impact. Historical fiction, quasi-historical fantasy, contemporary fantasy, and science fiction all feature technologies with which most readers are not fluent. But the use of technical terminology, of the correct terms for particular objects or maneuvers, can help establish the world-building of the story (see my earlier discussion of how Ian Fleming and John le Carré use these science fictional techniques).
The sentence, paragraph, and chapter structures can similarly affect the pacing of the action, and likewise manipulate the reader’s focus. Staccato sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters accelerate the pace. When the emotional stakes are established, when the reader is invested, the accelerating pace increases the reader’s tension.
The words used to describe the violence, with their sound, their rhythm, and the emotions they evoke in the reader likewise affect the reader’s response. To describe a sword wound as “gaping” or “weeping” produces a different response in the reader, and this type of response can be played with to good effect.
In Cornwell, the descriptions of violence are visceral: when focused closely, Cornwell describes the wounds inflicted in graphic terms. But for his protagonist, battle is just another day at the office. Richard Sharpe remains emotionally invested in the violence, but there is a purposeful disconnect between his ruthlessness in battle and the graphic way in which Cornwell describes the horrors of war. Sharpe laments the ugliness of war, but he also revels in it. As he says time and time again, it is the only job he was ever good at.
On the Absence of Violence
But not all books – and certainly not all genre books – need violence to be successful. One of my favorites, John Crowley’s Little, Big is pretty much devoid of violence. Violence can by its very nature either by physical (as it tends to be in much fantasy), emotional (as it tends to be in much romance), or philosophical (as it often is in much 19th century literature). But as far as I can see, the tools by which those different kinds of violence are established, and the uses to which we put them, are consistent.
Whether the violence involves a broadsword, a ray gun, or cutting repartée, the tools for its depiction remain the same. And that’s because it is not violence that affects the reader, but rather the way in which that violence gets presented.