Accurately Portraying Violence in Fiction


Author’s Note: Here’s another bit from the archives for you. I screwed up earlier this year and lost several months of blog entries, and this is another of them. As I’ve been doing periodically already, I’ll continue to post such material as I rediscover it, in my Facebook Notes, on my hard drive, etc.


L-R: Wrath James White, Me, Hank Schwaeble, Joe Lansdale, Adam Coats, Sandra Wickham, Brian Keene, Weston Ochse

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of sitting on a panel on Killing and Violence in Fiction with Wrath James White, Hank Schwaeble, Joe Lansdale, Adam Coats, Sandra Wickham, Brian Keene and Weston Ochse at the World Horror Convention. I’d known for a couple weeks that I’d be on the panel, and I did what anyone in my position would do when graced with such knowledge: I freaked the hell out. And then I gave some serious thought to what exactly I would say when the time came.

The panel, as I’ve since learned they often do, went in an entirely different direction than I’d imagined, and I didn’t say as much as I was worried I’d have to. This is for a couple of different reasons; one, the conversation drifted heavily towards the martial arts and while I have some training, I’m not a master or a trainer and don’t know enough to warrant running my mouth. Two, the guys on that panel… when some of them get to talking, I’m going to STFU and listen. But, since I didn’t want all that nervous thinking to go to waste, and this blog doesn’t write itself, here are my thoughts on the subject:

Writers have a responsibility to readers. The degree of responsibility is a matter of debate among some in the industry (see George R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch, for example), but there are certain commitments that I feel an author makes when one chooses to publish. One is to Not Be a Dick, unless someone just comes out and asks for it. Another is to Be Gracious to Readers and Other Authors Who Are Where You Used to Be (Lord knows I’ve frequently been the beneficiary of this one). A third is to Suspend Disbelief. As a fiction writer, you enable the reader to get lost in your world, or else You’re Doing it Wrong.

As genre authors, we’re already stacking the deck against ourselves. We have to make readers believe in a world where cowboys fight zombies, werewolves exist, serial killers can resurrect their victims, etc. Why complicate matters by doing slipshod research or taking bad shortcuts that some readers are inevitably going to call us on? On the panel, I mentioned an author who sent me a story in which a husband attempted to treat his wife’s head injury with a tourniquet around the neck. We also touched upon the effect of individual rifle calibration on said weapon’s use by a third party. Whether your violence is inflicted by knives, guns, teeth or Kung Fu, the bottom line is Figure Out How it Works For Real. We have to create good fiction from scratch in most cases and hope it resonates, but the facts? We have complete control over the facts. The facts are what they are.

In terms of writing a fight… I look at it as choreography. The fights in movies and in books are staged; staged because we know the characters are going to throw down and in most cases, as creators, we know who’s going to win ahead of time.  Creating such an illusion, in film or in prose, requires thought and planning. Think about how the surroundings can affect the fight. Consider such things as momentum and how body parts bend. Think about how long (or short, to be more accurate) a real fight is likely to be.

Also, don’t think of any of this as a limitation. Think of it as freedom, and as a way to make your stories more organic and spontaneous. Take my calibrated assault rifle, for instance. Every soldier goes to the range and calibrates his or her assigned weapon to interact with his or her own visual perception. If a random civilian picks it up, say after it’s dropped in the midst of a fight with zombies, the likelihood of them scoring a headshot on a zombie that’s attacking their friend 100 meters away is unlikely, even if they’re trained in the use of that weapon. If, upon consideration, you decide to have your character use the gun anyway, a far more likely result is that your character will kill or injure their friend instead. This might not be a bad thing. It can result in a plotline or character development that will take you by surprise… and if you’re surprised by your own story, imagine how it will affect the reader! This is the sort of thing writers mean when they talk about stories writing themselves.

Just a little food for thought.