Discussion Topic: Where’s the line between violence for realism versus violence for morbid, voyeuristic gratification?
The short answer is that this differentiation defies easy, simplistic measurements. As for how I decide, I use my gut. Sometimes I can put my reaction into words and other times a scene feels unnecessary, even if I can’t say why.
I usually only ever find fictional violence “necessary” when it upholds realism. Underplaying real life violence in a novel can sometimes do more harm than good, undermining the horror of real life victims. Then there’s the mentality that we shouldn’t sidestep around the grittier aspects of human nature, especially in more sweeping epics with large casts. Describing a violent scene in detail can also help bring a reader closer to the character(s). Said character is no longer an interchangeable Victim of Violence, but - if the author knows their craft - an individual whose emotions, thoughts, and actions we understand better since we utilized our empathy to imagine their traumatic experience (in other words, we get where they’re coming from as they make future decisions). Last, I admire the authors who insert violence into their work specifically not to glorify the brutality. Instead they peel away the adrenaline-pumping veil of skill and mystery and instead represent violence as something, well, not sexy in the least.
Moving on to when violence feels unnecessary to me, let’s start with glorifying bloodshed and merciless ferocity. I often find myself internally lecturing an author when killing or hurting people is represented as heroic, or rape as validation of a woman’s desirability. Violence also feels gratuitous when it’s described in excessive detail. In fact, violence and sex both emphasize how much skill writing takes. You could ask dozens of writers to portray the exact same murder or sex scene and each would version would feel utterly unique based on the author’s word choice and explicitness. Take cozy murder mysteries. While that label sounds like an oxymoron in itself, most of those books avoid vivid, gruesome descriptions of the murder and the victim. Sometimes detail can help serve the realism cause, but other times it feels unwarranted, like the author’s trying to titillate the reader with blood and guts and perversion. I also dislike when a violent scene feels too much like a plot twist. As I’ve mentioned time and again in my reviews, I believe that good writing makes you forget about the author. You don’t think about why the writer choose to make A or B happen, because the story seems to exist on its own. It feels like a disservice to real life victims when violence is used as an easy Increase Suspense Button. Last, fictional violence feels wrong when, well, it feels wrong. Though I’m perhaps an overly analytical person, I go with my gut reactions on this particular discussion topic and if a violent scene feels...icky (and I mean icky in how it represents violence not icky because violence is icky) then I trust that response even when an exact explanation alludes me.
As for some examples, the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series by George R.R. Martin jumps to mind in any conversation about violence in fiction! Taste-wise, for me it’s too much. Focusing on serving a purpose, though, Martin himself has quoted realism. Wars are not pleasant affairs. (My mental Understatement Alarm is going off.) So many novels, especially in the fantasy genre, portray wars as some inspirational dash for glory, but Martin’s works showcase the more likely interpretation of each individual looking out for their own: themselves, their family and friends, their possessions and interests, etc.And have I mentioned that his works are set in medieval times? Far less accountability, for one thing, meaning wars become a kind of violence free-for-all.
CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein, about a young spy captured by the Gestapo during World War II, depicts horrendous torture with minimal description. Wein has so carefully chosen her words that readers will likely paint scenes in accordance with their own understanding. (Think of kids’ movies with surprisingly dirty jokes. Adults catch the jokes due to their understanding of sex, but the insinuation slips past children with more innocent outlooks.) Also Wein keeps any violence rooted in emotion. If someone’s being tortured, I thought about the character’s torn desires: not betraying anyone and making the pain stop. If someone’s injured, I thought about all the family members and friends praying for that character to come home safely.
Holly Black’s book THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN still stands out in my mind as the first ever vampire book I enjoyed, due in large part to the fact that she doesn’t romanticize vampires’ bloodthirsty urges. Blood becomes a focal point of sexual arousal in numerous vampire stories, often described with sensual word selection that makes even murder seem like a kind of seduction. In fact, blood has sexy connotations in many contexts...but certainly not in Black’s description of a vampire tearing veins from someone’s wrist and arm.
One of my favorite authors, Anne Bishop, always writes worlds steeped in ghastly sadism. Dark isn’t a selling point for me, but her kind of dark I love. It’s a different kind of fantasy, because the villains always get theirs in the end. It’s almost therapeutic after reading stories in the newspaper about criminals going unpunished to settle in with a book where anyone who commits horrible acts will meet a horrible fate. Funny because I say I like violence for realism but this isn’t realistic; sometimes attackers face no repercussions for their actions. Also, while I might like it in a story, in real life I wouldn’t promote this kind of a hand for a hand punishment found in THE BLACK JEWELS series. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes comforting imagining a world like Bishop’s, where Karma is the ultimate vigilante who tracks down every single villain.
I don’t want to call out books that alienated me in their representation of violence. I review the ones I like and don’t mention the ones I don’t, because I would rather spend my energy promoting books I love than bashing books I hate. However, titles and character names omitted, I’ll mention some cases when violence in a book felt unnecessary to me. I have three fictional rape examples that always jump to the forefront of my mind when discussing this topic. First, I’ve never forgiven a book where the woman’s past rape felt thrown in to give her character more depth...but then left unaddressed. The woman appeared to have zero emotional scars from her rape; it was jut something that had happened to her. Second, I’ve read a handful of books in which the villain desperately wanting to rape the heroine serves of evidence of her beauty and desirability. There are entire blogs dedicated to discussing rape in more depth, but I’ll just say here: It’s not about attraction. It’s about power. Third, I recently read a book that I wanted to throw against a wall because the whole unfocused story built up to a random sickening rape scene that felt entirely needless. My best guess behind the author’s motivation is that she asked herself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen next?” If it had been a book “about” rape it might have worked. As I’ve mentioned, skilled writers prove that it’s not the subject matter but how you tell the story that counts. This rape felt like it nothing to do with the story but like the author pushed that Increase Suspense Button that spews out arbitrary atrocities. As for non-rape violence, I’ve read more books than I can count where the author describes vicious murders to highlight the pure evil nature of the villain. This feels like a shortcut. I prefer layered characters. The villain shouldn’t think he’s a villain. Describing grisly, twisted actions without considering the motivations behind those actions feels like a cheap way to encourage readers to side against the antagonist.
The fact remains that this isn't a measurable factor. I read violent books that impress me and violent books that repel me. Sometimes I can easily express why the violence felt pointless and other times I can only reference my gut. I’ll end on a reiteration that it’s not the subject matter but the way the writer tells the story.