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Violence and Gore in Fantasy

Thanks for all of your great article suggestions last week. I’m taking them in order, and up first, I get to tackle one that will probably have me flayed, drawn, and quartered by both sides: How much is too much violence and gore in fantasy?

It’s with great trepidation that I wade into this morass, because I really think, as with so many things related to writing and storytelling, that it depends on a lot of factors. You simply can’t answer “how much is too much” definitively. But what you can do, I think, is give some guidelines and food for thought for authors to consider as they try to bring their stories to life.

I should also say that when I talk about violence in this article, I’m not just talking about sword fights or battle scenes. I think authors need to consider all aspects of violence, including torture, sexual violence, genocide, domestic violence, etc. Likewise, when approaching the idea of “gore,” I look at that as the level of description of the violence in question. That might mean grotesque, detailed descriptions of missing limbs and eyes, in-depth accounts of sexual assault or torture, or long, drawn-out histories of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Violence is the verb or noun; gore is the adverb or adjective. At least, that’s how I’m approaching it here.

So here you go—the things I consider before writing any kind of violence into my work:

1)      Does it drive plot, develop character, or describe the setting? These are my Three Ds: drive, develop, describe. First and foremost, is the violence or gore gratuitous? You may need to listen to your beta readers or editors on this one, because sometimes we have our blinders on over this kind of thing. Don’t take one squeamish beta reader’s word for it, but if several people say that your violence is distracting or isn’t serving the story, you may need to revise.

2)      Consider your audience. Years ago, I tried to read Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson. I was drawn into the story by Thomas Covenant’s issues, and I was intrigued by him as a protagonist, but I threw the book across the room when he raped a girl. Now, it’s not that I think rape can’t ever be in a book, but he was the protagonist. He had absolutely no good reason for what he did (it wasn’t like he was a Dothraki raider who was expected to rape after a battle), and he showed no remorse at all. I could no longer cheer for him. For a long time, I thought I was just squeamish, but I’ve heard a lot of other women say the same thing about that series. I never read another book by Donaldson.

So my point? You really need to think about how you want people to see your characters. Maybe you’re okay with having your protagonist rape women, and maybe you think you can still make him likeable. Go ahead and try it. You just need to realize you may lose a sizeable portion of your audience. Likewise, you should consider the same with any kind of violence. I know people who couldn’t get past the child abuse in the early pages of Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows. Now, you can’t write for EVERYONE, and there’s no way you can know what everyone will say upon reading your work, but you can at least consider how the violence will be viewed by different segments of the fantasy-reading community.

3)      Remember that you don’t need violence to make things scary, tense, or creepy. Ever seen an Alfred Hitchcock movie? You don’t really need onscreen violence to terrify. Hitchcock could destroy your peace of mind with whispers and expressions.

4)      Use backstory and history to create your world. I think one of the most powerful ways to communicate violence is by looking backward. Think of pictures from liberated concentration camps after World War II or the Rwandan countryside after the genocide. We didn’t need to see the violence as it was happening to be sickened by the events. Or consider a warrior with PTSD or an adult who was abused as a child. Memories and conditioned responses can build character without showing the actual violence.

5)      If you write gore or violence, make sure it’s accurate. This crosses over into writing action scenes a little bit, but I think the gory side is something to think about when you write torture scenes or things like that. A man who’s being drawn and quartered won’t go quietly, and people around are going to be, quite possibly, physically ill. I’m not saying you have to write EVERY detail, but make sure the ones you DO write are realistic.

6)      Remember that it’s not about one-upmanship. You don’t have to write violence and gore just because you want to outdo something you’ve read. And you don’t have to one-up your own previous work, either. Whatever you write should serve your story, first and foremost.

7)      Trust your reader. Again, readers don’t need a ton of description. For me, often, I only need a seedling of an idea about the violence and gore to know that icky, bad things have happened. Sometimes the reader can imagine worse things than you can write! Remember that the reader wants to imagine and create—that’s why he or she is reading in the first place. You can just plant the ideas and let them take root in the reader’s mind.

One final note: This is a writing column, so I try to refrain from giving personal opinions. I really do attempt to make my advice neutral. But I feel I should say that my own view of violence in modern fantasy is that it’s a tad overdone. I have a pretty high tolerance for all the big button pushers (sex, violence, politics, religion) in my reading, but in general, I don’t think the gore has to be quite so blatant as seems to be the trend. We should never forget that our work is about the story, not trying to gross people out.

Next week: action scenes and combat.

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22 Comments

  1. I have to keep reminding myself of the last point, Trust Your Reader. It’s true, their mind pieces the pieces and connects the dots. 🙂 Great post again. thank you!

  2. I really enjoyed this article! As a fantasy writer I try to learn from people like Alfred Hitchcock and those other writers/directors of oldhorror movies – what scared you wasn’t what you saw but what you didn’t see. and that concept goes with books as well. People’s imaginations are much scarier than anything you can put in front of them!

  3. Anne Lyle says:

    Great article as usual! I have to say I have a fairly low tolerance for gore, so I appreciate an author who handles violence without being over the top.

    If anyone has read both “The Lies of Locke Lamora” and “Among Thieves”, they’ll know that both feature torture scenes. The first of those was so gory, it gave me nightmares; the second didn’t bother me at all, even though the torture was at the protagonist’s instigation. I understand why Lynch did it – he wanted to raise the stakes for the hero by showing how brutal the bad guy was – but for me it stepped over the line and made me reluctant to read subsequent books in the series.

    I’m not saying writers shouldn’t be gory, but I appreciate reviews that point these aspects out. I read for pleasure, not to give myself nightmares!

    • Anne, agreed. And as much as I love GRRM, and as high a tolerance as I have for gore and violence, “A Dance with Dragons” came pretty close to pushing me over the edge and into “I’ll never read this guy’s books again.” Which is sad, because I love the story.

      I will say, too, that if the violence seems gratuitous, that’s when I really throw in the towel. My example of Thomas Covenant is a good one. There was just no reason for a man from the modern world to think it was acceptable to rape a girl. Now, I could tolerate Dothraki raiders raping women, but that was because it was presented as a culturally acceptable practice that Danaerys wanted to stop. Even though I found it abhorrent, it made sense.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Very, very good article. I wrote a piece at a younger age, and included all that nasty stuff because, at sixteen, I was into it — at least in a fictional setting; certainly not in real life. Your comment interested me about a man being drawn and quartered having an effect on the people around him; because, when I revisited my novel, I used that premise to move the scene away from the actual torture and to the other characters who could only hear the screams. I think it makes it more effective on some levels, less nasty on others, and raises the tension for the moment the victim returns and we see just what has been done to him — again, without really gory details. So, yes, I would agree that less was a lot more in that instance. Very glad to see this article!

    • Thank you, Daniel. Yes, I think that’s a great example, and it kind of ties into the “what’s unseen is more frightening than what’s seen” idea. I think moving the experience into the POV of outside characters can be very, very effective, and you’re right–it does raise the tension. Thanks for your comment!

  5. I actually have a fairly low tolerance for gore and psychological violence. Silence of the Lambs scared the butterflies out of me. To this day, I avoid any kind of horror (book or movie) and overly-violent thrillers. They just make me feel bad, sometimes for days.

    For my own novel, I did write one scene that included a bit of violence and blood. It was a battle scene between several travelers and a powerful monster, so there had to be a real sense of peril. No humans were permanently harmed in the making of my scene, although the troll didn’t fare too well.

    • LOL, Daniel, at “no humans were permanently harmed…” I’m a little sad for the troll… 😉

      We saw Silence of the Lambs on our honeymoon, in a theater. This both highlights how old and how twisted we are. Still, even in Silence of the Lambs, a lot of the actual violence occurred offscreen. The terror of that movie came from the tension and anxiety of knowing two serial killers were on the hunt, if in different ways.

      I will say that I could not stomach the other Hannibal movies that came after Silence. Just too flipping gory for me. And I long ago realized I couldn’t watch Criminal Minds when my husband wasn’t home. Scary, disturbing, creepy show always made it impossible for me to sleep….

  6. True, i can agree to some of this to a point. However, I think it is our civilized ways making us forget how violent even skirmishes in the early 1900’s were. We look away because we cannot stomach it, yet the graphic nature of battle and war is intense. People were cruel. Heavens forbid you were a pagan or wore a different religious symbol.

    I guess this would fall under trust your reader. For all the cries I hear about gritty realism and believability, it is too sad when those people also turn their heads or chide for gritty violence.

    Not that I am accusing anyone here on this, it is just a hot button issue on the other side. Either you want grit and realism in its entirety or you want sophistication and class with your warfare and torture.

    Good article, very rare I get my hackles up. Thanks for sharing!

    • Leif, it is true that sometimes people ask for more grit and realism and then backpedal with “oh no, I didn’t mean THAT!” But I will say that what I’m hearing from readers of fantasy is that the trend toward more violence and gore is starting to wear on many readers. I hear more and more people say, “could we just have some good old-fashioned quests and heroes and a little less blood?” Maybe that’s just in my circle of friends, but I confess, I’d kind of like to read a few good old-fashioned quests myself…

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. Kate Newburg says:

    Great article, definitely a lot of things to think about. A lot can be done with language to imply the horrific nature of violence and gore and the readers can mentally fill in the details THEY need.

  8. Nino van Vuuren says:

    Very interesting article. There are a number of books that I haven’t read just because I knew the violence and gore would upset me too much. I have however read the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson and how I continued reading past the rape scene in the beginning of Lord Foul’s Bane I still dont know. I am however glad that I did, finding that the scene had in fact a big impact on the story line and the character development of Thomas Covenant as well as the girl he raped and the daughter born as a result thereof.

    Another case of “violence” that kept me awake at night is the slave trade in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy. But it was not so much the descriptions in the book that kept me awake as the realisation that slave trade was and still is a reality in the “real world”. So in a sense a social issue (that one would normally consider as something that happened only to others, way back in history) is brought closer to home and made a reality through fantasy. With the added bonus that no fingers were pointed.

    • Nino, that’s funny you mention slave trade, because I have that in my own work, largely for that explicit purpose–to highlight something that still goes on in the real world. I tend to gravitate toward social issues, and one of the strengths of fantasy is that an author can examine those issues without pointing fingers or making judgments.

      I might, perhaps, go back and try Donaldson again someday, but we’ll see… I’d have to have a pretty compelling reason…

  9. I guess I’m kind of in the Conan the Barbarian old school when it comes to violence. I think you can go too far, and in fact I hate the slasher flicks that seem to be so popular now. But one thing that never fails to disappoint me is the approach of leading up to a good fight, then skipping past it to look moodily over the battlefield. I feel ripped off. Now I think there are two ways to approach a battle. Either close in and personal, or zoomed out and looking at the big picture (I try to do both and break it into different POV scenes). Big picture can be accomplished with descriptions like dozens of men falling from the arrow storm, nothing really graphic there, but the point is made. The scuppers running with blood, a common description in nautical tales, is a graphic version of the big picture. Up close and personal does need a bit of the old gore. It is boring to read that Cron the Barbarian slew this one and that one and the other one. No, we need some detail to the fight, like Cron beating down the guard of the girly man soldier and then slicing deep into the shoulder. Then almost losing his stupid barbarian head to the next civilized man to come along in the melee. As far as rape and child abuse go, I’m not big into those, but did use the rape of a child in one book to show the evil of the man, and to motivate the child, who would one day be a very powerful magic user, to always resist the evil that was around her. But it isn’t something I would just throw in there for the heck of it.

    • Doug, I don’t think anything should really be completely forbidden or off-limits in writing fiction. I just think we have to be careful to make sure we don’t use violence or gore lightly and that we always have a purpose behind what we do. That said, I do agree with you on battle and action scenes. You kind of have to split it into large, medium, and small scale. I love the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin books for their treatment of violence and gore. It’s occasionally rather clinical, but it’s always accurate and never glossed over, and yet somehow, I don’t feel like I can’t tolerate it. Patrick O’Brian struck a great balance in his depictions of naval battles.

      Thanks for your comment.

  10. […] you can be too accurate, which can translate into gory or over-the-top violent. Of course, it’s up to you how far you want to go down the violence/gore road, but make sure you write detailed gore and violence for the sake of the story, not for […]

  11. James Post says:

    Just another nod in the direction of Thomas Covenant. What I’ve heard from other readers who give up near the beginning is not so much that they were put off by the rape, but rather the lack of consequences.
    Donaldson doesn’t let his characters off that easily.
    It takes hundreds of pages for the consequences to come, the protagonist knows they’re coming the whole time, and when the other shoe drops, it’s HEAVY.
    The rape becomes in some sense the original sin in that world’s history, nearly everything bad that happens later stems from it, and the protagonist can never escape his responsibility for fixing it because he’s literally responsible.
    Incidentally, the narrative finds some way to punish him for engaging in self-pity at any point, as well.

  12. Philip Overby (@Philip_Overby) says:

    I would say I read what might be considered darker fantasy fiction. However, I can’t say that I’ve seen gore really overdone in anyway. Which books would you consider this happens in? Maybe I’m not reading the right books, but I’ve read Howard, Abercrombie, Martin, Erikson, Lawrence, and Morgan, who are considered by some to have a high quotient of violent content. I can’t say there is anything in any of their books that seems superfluous in anyway to me. It could be because I read lots of horror growing up as well (watched gory horror movies also) so perhaps my threshold is higher.

    I do agree not showing everything sometimes can be beneficial, but again, keeping an audience in mind is important. If your audience likes violent content, then why restrict it?

    I do think that the pendulum tends to swing both ways though. Some fantasy writing feels too clean. If there is a great war that is sweeping the land, I would expect a certain amount of violence to be shown. If things feel too neat, that can also cause problems with immersion.

    Thanks for the insightful article as well. It’s good to consider these things for those of us who may have more violence in our writing.

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