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.