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Posts tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

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):

Newspaper Article
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.

Emotional Context

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.

Information Density and Selecting Planks for Story Scaffolding

Information density, or the “I had to do a lot of research, and now you, dear reader, must suffer for it” tendency, is one of the perennial challenges of good fiction, and over the past several days Alec Austin and Marie Brennan have posted some interesting thoughts on the subject (also, check out the ensuing discussions in their comments sections). Since I love history and tend to write alternate history or heavily historically-inspired stories, this is something I’m usually really sensitive to, both as a reader and as a writer. But the lens through which I view this problem tends to be one of narrative purpose.

What is the story about?

Fiction at its heart is a representational art form, which means that the words we write are not the objects/events we write about: they are facsimiles, symbols which evoke a sense of mimesis in our reader. When we sit down to write a story, we must consciously choose which details (historical or otherwise) to include, and how to portray those details. Alec and Marie refer to this as “simplification” and “flattening,” and while I recognize the value in such terms, they are the diametric opposite to my own way of thinking. Rather than “simplification”, I prefer to think in terms of “selection”. The end point may be the same, but the mental path I take to get there is a little different.

Here’s a writing exercise to illustrate my point: try to completely describe everything in your immediate environs over a five second period. Actually, don’t: to do it right, you’d be there ’til the heat death of the universe.

It is a physical impossibility to capture every aspect of even a limited scope in symbolic representation (and that’s without getting into the details only observable by electron microscope). When we write, we choose the salient details, those that are relevant to our artistic purposes. We might use motifs, or facts, or events, or emotions and more besides. But we choose what we portray, and leave the rest of our imagined reality in the empty spaces between our words. We rely on the reader’s imagination to fill in those blanks. Our job is to use our words to give the reader enough of a scaffolding on which they can hang their imaginings. And the process by which we do so relies on choosing the right words, the right details, to erect that scaffold.

The complex messiness of history, sociology, economics, anthropology, biology are the planks through which we assemble that scaffold. But not every plank is interchangeable: depending on the nature of our story, depending on our artistic purpose, depending on our narrative structure, different planks are needed in different points.

To riff off of Marie’s excellent example of the English Civil War (the history of which she knows infinitely better than I do), the economic pressures on the Crown are at best only marginally relevant if I am writing a fairy tale set during Charles I’s England. A little child who enters the woods and encounters a witch would be unaware of those economic pressures, and they would be irrelevant to the narrative’s overall trajectory. To switch to the European mainland for a moment, it is hard to imagine Hansel and Gretel pausing to explain the economics of the 17th century Black Forest farming communities. It is equally hard to imagine the narrator of Hansel and Gretel doing so because those economics are irrelevant to the story’s goals.

This isn’t a “simplification” or a “flattening” of the detail any more than is the omission of unrelated events halfway across the globe: it is simply the selection of salient information. When we write, our job is to select the salient, relevant pieces of information that the reader needs to perceive in order to achieve our narrative goals.

Illustrative Information versus Explicative Information

However, even if the story is not “about” the economics of 16th/17th century monarchy, the inclusion of such details may add to the sub-textual content of our narrative: to its verisimilitude, or to its tone, or to its broader themes. To run with my Hansel and Gretel example, I can imagine a modified version of the story where the economics of the Black Forest are relevant (the upwardly mobile step-mother desperate to ensure her own children’s future in times of famine, say) to the story’s narrative purpose. If the history, if the detail, is relevant to my story’s overt or sub-textual purposes, then the question is no longer whether to include it or not, but instead morphs into how to do so.

In my reading, I’ve found two different strategies for this, which I think of as the illustrative versus the explicative approach. And interestingly, I find classic fairy tales to provide excellent examples of both strategies. Both are equally valid, and can be equally effective, but they work in different ways. To some extent, these strategies can be thought of as “showing” versus “telling”, but I think that grossly over-simplifies them.

Consider my hypothetical modified Hansel and Gretel example, where I have determined that I must somehow communicate a modicum of the economic context to my reader. I can choose to do so in an illustrative fashion, by depicting the consequences of those economics. I have a vast number of ways to illustrate those economics, but the two easiest are to either (please forgive the quick-drafted examples):

A: allude to them in the step-mother’s dialog

“But Hansel; but Gretel,” said their new mother, “you wouldn’t want your new baby brother and sister to starve, would you? Please, fetch some berries from the wood.”

B: imply them through my prose description of their farm/farming community.

With the pox so recent, and the winter so cold and hard, most of the neighboring farms sat fallow: untended, untilled, unloved. Hansel and Gretel’s farm, though scarcely large enough for the three of them in the lean months, was one of the few that bloomed that year. Still, however tight their belts, Father always found an apple for the widow next door, and for her baby boy and toddling little girl as well. With their own mother in Heaven, God rest her soul, the whole village knew it would not be long before Hansel and Gretel had a new mother, and with her a baby brother and hungry little sister.

In each case, I would concretely depict the consequences of the economics, so as to show their effect on characters and setting. I would allude to or imply the broader economics, and I could do so with greater or lesser narrative economy which would in turn be determined by the story’s narrative structure.

Whether I do it in dialog, or in prose, or in both, and whether it happens in one sentence or six paragraphs depends on the point-of-view it is told from, and the narrative voice in which the story is written. The illustrative technique, however, communicates the relevant economic context through implication derived from action.

An explicative approach, where the background is explicitly explained to the reader, would be equally valid. It might be as simply done as the classic “once upon a time” fairy tale opening, where the relevant facts are stated and accepted as given. This might be accomplished through a distant or even omniscient narrator (check out Olaf Stapledon or Mervyn Peake for awe-inspiring examples of this), or the explanation might be heavily inflected by a narrator’s subjective point of view (think Raymond Chandler).

Of the two approaches, I think the explicative is the more difficult to pull off for modern readers. The illustrative approach relies on character and narrative voice to pull the reader along, leaving the intellectual dimension as subtext. As a result, it is more accessible and “less dry” for most readers.

The explicative approach, by contrast, relies on the intellectual dimension and voice to make its content interesting and compelling. Alec mentions Kim Stanley Robinson’s infodumps, and for me they are an excellent example of relying on the intellectual dimension to carry the reader through the relevant background. They are very hard to pull off, and arguably only effective for a limited audience, precisely because this explicitly intellectual approach is “dry” by modern standards of fictional narrative. Explicative approaches that rely on voice, such as Raymond Chandler or Damon Runyon, tend to be more accessible because the narrator’s voice itself connotes character.

Historical Fantasy and Narrative Structures

Given this framework, I think one can communicate just about any level of complex background, economic, social, or otherwise. But it does affect the complexity of the underlying narrative structure. It may lead to more perspective characters, or to a different narrative voice. And those, in turn, may further limit the audience or otherwise decrease the story’s accessibility.

But that’s a fact of life: every word we write limits our audience to some extent. Which is why selecting the right word is all that matters.

A Recipe for Revolution in Speculative Fiction

Every year, when the US’ independence day rolls around on July 4th, my thoughts naturally turn to revolution. And no, that’s not because I think we are due for a rebellion, or that we even need one. As a narrative device, though, revolutions are hard to beat – particularly in speculative fiction. Yet, as so much of the current harvest of lackluster dystopian YA suggests, they are also hard to pull off. So what makes a fictional revolution effective? Why do we feel for Enjolras in Hugo’s Les Miserables, for Florian in Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, or Jack Sperry in Morrow’s City of Truth?

Revolution as the Aristotelian Crucible of Significant Action

Revolution is a perfect tool for unifying characterization, plot, the story’s underlying political/philosophical themes, and expressing all three through the same significant action.

At the general, thirty thousand foot level, revolution explicitly pits two opposing ideologies against each other. Baldly stating thematic logic halts any story’s forward momentum (*cough* Atlas Shrugged *cough* ). But by representing that thematic logic through the concrete and significant actions of characters in the story, we can transmute logos into ethos and pathos…which together form the engine that drives the story. Consider Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which explicitly pits the Loonies’ libertarian ideals against the more collectivist values of Earth. While it can be argued that Heinlein is politically heavy-handed in the text, his political themes do not obstruct the story’s momentum.

Closer to the story itself, revolution enables us to test the characters we care about. In Hugo’s Les Miserables, for example, Marius Pontmercy faces an impossible choice between two “right” options: whether to follow the woman he loves, or to join his friends on the barricades. Revolution forces characters to consciously choose the values they will fight for. Suzanne Collins forces similar choices on Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay, where the heroine must decide who she believes, who she values, and who she brings into her life. When characters face such choices, they concretely evidence their agency. And a revolution forces such choices on its participants.

At an emotional level, revolution has the capacity to put ethos in direct conflict with pathos, and thus to heighten the tension derived from the characters’ agency. The choices that Marius Pontmercy and (to a more diffused degree) Katniss Everdeen face are poignant because they dramatize the conflict between their values/beliefs, and their personal desires. By the time each revolution comes about, we as the reader are fully invested in the character: we want them to have their cake and eat it, too. But when the author puts the characters’ ethical values in conflict with their personal desires, we end up on the edge of our seats, biting our nails to see how our beloved characters will choose. This imbues the resolution – whatever that resolution might be – with a significant degree of catharsis.

And the greatest advantage that revolution confers is that the same concrete action – the act of rebelling, the battles, etc. – can dramatize conflict at all of these levels simultaneously. It provides great narrative economy, and enables significant emotional density in the text. But the effect can also fall flat, particularly when the background to the revolution is flubbed.

Recipe for Revolution: It Must Simmer and Mix

Because of revolution’s myriad dramatic advantages, it is a tool that authors reach for quite often. Especially with the popularity of dystopian YA, it seems like every other book I pick up features a determined heroine forced to lead/spearhead/personify a revolution. In and of itself, that isn’t necessarily bad. But to be effective, the world-building has to make such a revolution plausible.

The roots of every revolution go back generations, and it is never a clear-cut case of right versus wrong. Whether it is the American Revolution, any of the myriad French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution of 1918, or the more-recent Arab Spring, revolutions take time to simmer. When faced with hardship, most would-be revolutionaries will grit their teeth and bear it until their oppression finally becomes unbearable. There are good evolutionary and sociological reasons for this, but if we forget this fact in our world-building then we risk undermining the inevitability of our plot device.

Consider the background to the recent Egyptian revolution: the division of Egyptian society between privileged elites and the poor masses, the scarcely-checked powers of the police, the restrictions on free speech and concomitant limitation of political rights, and the de facto hereditary nature of rule were issues that Egyptians have wrestled with going back at least to Egypt’s time in the Ottoman Empire. And yet, revolutions throughout Egypt’s history have been rare, typically spaced out by one or two generations. A similar pattern is observable across every nation that has rebelled (at least as far as I can see, but I’m not a historian so I might be missing some counter-examples). What matters from a narrative standpoint is that revolutions do not foment at the drop of a hat. The demographic and social structures must be in place for a spark to fall on dry tinder. This level of world-building does not need to complicate or weigh down the story. Instead, it can be used to add a degree of verisimilitude that deepens the reader’s engagement with the characters and their problems.

Similarly, historical revolutions are never as clear-cut as future independence day celebrations like to make out. Each side in a revolution features individuals of laudable moral character, fighting for what they believe in. This can be narrative gold, precisely because it paints in stark relief the choices that our characters must make. But ignoring the messiness of true revolution is a tremendous narrative risk: by making a revolution entirely one-sided, we eviscerate its ability to express deeper political/philosophical themes and risk its ability to generate dramatic tension. This, I think, is the hardest trick in building a fictional revolution because of the degree to which it ties into point of view. It is difficult (though not impossible) to humanize the “oppressive regime” when the only eyes through which we perceive it are those of a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary.

The Counter-argument: Revolution as MacGuffin

There is, however, a counter-argument to what I just said: Star Wars (the original trilogy, not the poorly written fan-fic prequels that followed). In A New Hope, the Empire’s oppression is implied and expressed with great economy. The audience does not see the Empire’s heavy boot: we are told that it exists, and because our characters take it for granted, we do as well. No attempts are made to humanize the Empire, to justify the Emperor’s policies, or to present the stormtroopers as anything other than faceless, gun-toting oppressors. So if Star Wars ignores my advice above, why does it (the original trilogy, again) still work? Because the revolution is not used as a unifying device.

The revolution and the Rebel Alliance’s victory over the Empire are not the climax and natural conclusion to the story. It is not used to unify the disparate character arcs, or to represent the thematic discourse of the story. The real climax and the story’s real narrative arc centers on the more personal concerns of Luke Skywalker on the one hand, and Leia Organa/Han Solo on the other. The revolution is merely a colorful backdrop to their personal stories, and it is treated as broadly incidental. The rebellion is to Star Wars as the Civil War is to Gone with the Wind: setting.

The original trilogy works because the actors earned our engagement, and because their characters’ personal stories are compelling enough to take and maintain our focus. The revolution is neither needed for their stories, nor is it used to dramatize any aspect of the conflict. It is, to some extent, the thematic and structural equivalent of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin.

A Revolution Every Day

Revolution can be a powerful tool for unifying the strands of our storytelling, but like any such tool it requires solid work to establish its foundations. Without laying the groundwork for a revolution, it will fail. And if it is intended as a unifying element in the story, then it must maintain its plausibility and depth in order to achieve the desired unifying effect. In such cases, sacrificing the revolution’s depth will similarly sacrifice the story’s depth. If, however, the revolution is just a Cool Event that Happens independent of the story’s underlying thematic tension, then attempting to shoe-horn depth into it (as those aforementioned prequels do) will derail the train of story.

But enough about fictional revolutions for now. For those of you in the US, I hope that you have a wonderful 4th of July, that you stay cool despite the massive heatwaves (and power outages) sweeping the nation, and that you enjoy some great BBQ and awesome fireworks. Happy Independence Day, everybody!

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