On Violence in Writing Fantasy: Part One

on Thursday, April 26, 2012
Pictured: Potential violence in fantasy. And Sean Bean

So I've been considering the topic of violence while writing fantasy for some time now, though a more recent conversation with my father-in-law finally sparked it to the point where this blog post exists. Violence in fantasy novels is fairly commonplace, as it is part of that whole "swords and sorcery" appeal that draws people into fantasy in the first place. You could argue a fantasy novel without a swordfight really isn't a fantasy novel, as if it's some unspoken requirement. What I want to look at is two important questions: Why do we feel violence is necessary in fantasy, and How do we portray the violence to best help a manuscript or story progress?

For this first part in this multi-part blog post, here's a brief look into other mediums to see how they handle violence. We'll start with perhaps the easiest to explain: Video Games.

From Bloodforge, a game that released yesterday on Xbox 360

Video Games have become dependent on violence to even exist. From the very first time Mario stomped a Goomba flat to the throngs of 12-year-olds currently blasting each other to death in Call of Duty, video games have become completely desensitized to violence. In fact, they are all reliant on violence to even make a game. Name me a dozen games that don't use violence at all to tell a story. Modern games. Old adventure games don't count.

Journey is the only one that comes to mind, and perhaps the recently released Fez, both indie games. The point is: violence is so overblown in video games that they are glorifying in it. The bloodies, messiest games (like Bloodforge above, God of War, Dead Space, etc.) often do so because they sell better. Like the slogan "Sex Sells" in advertising, "Violence Sells" could be applicable to video games.

Because of this, any sort of emotional impact violence might have in the majority of video games is lost. How am I supposed to feel sad my companion died in Modern Warfare 3 if I spent the whole game gunning down hundreds of people? Why should I be sad in an JRPG when my one character dies when I've spent the whole game slaughtering people, animals, and anything that has XP attached? Nier is the only game I can think of that actually turned this idea of glorifying slaughter against the player through its story, which is probably why I feel the game is atrociously clever. It was a game with swords, blood, and killing that lured you into the traditional gaming mechanic of "kill everything that moves," then pulled a clever twist on you that I won't spoil here.

The point is this: video game violence has become completely meaningless in terms of story, for most games. Even story-centric ones like Mass Effect seem to lose and edge when somebody I know dies because I've just finished killing hundreds of people. Perhaps the worst culprit of this is Uncharted, which is essentially Indiana Jones if Indiana Jones was just killing random mercenaries instead of Nazies, and doing it by the hundreds. As he cracks jokes and laughs he looks like a psychopath to anybody not familiar to this blood-soaked medium, like the creators saw Indiana Jones but completely missed why we didn't think he was a raving loon: he didn't kill everything that moved. In fact, someone counted the murders across all four movies, and there's only around 20, tops. I do more than that in the first ten minutes of any video game I've picked up in the last six months.

So video games don't know how to use violence for anything other than glorification (as a majority, anyway) and appealing to males.

One of the few movies that portrays all violence as horrific as it actually is.

Movies and television, however, haven't pigeonholed themselves into the violence-centered showcase like video games have. But, to be honest, they aren't without their flaws. The main difference between movies and games (aside from the interactivity) is movies aren't afraid to make movies without violence. They can make romantic comedies. They can make family dramas that are powerful and without a single ounce of violence in them. They can make silly movies, odd movies, and art-house movies. Comedies and more can all be bereft of any form of physical violence whatsoever.

However, when you go down to the fantasy genre, you find movies can be just as guilty as anyone else in glorifying violence.

Let's take the example from the first picture: the Game of Thrones TV adaptation. It's worth noting there actually isn't a hefty amount of violence in the first book, compared to other fantasy novels. Most violence happens off-screen, is very brief, and clean. The book is more about being a mystery story set in a dark fantasy world, while we follow a family as their lives change and influence the world around them. Even the most powerful death in the book, which I will not spoil here, is not described at all. Even abstractly. It's a brilliant death, too, and far more harrowing because you don't even see it. 

And then we have the TV show. Aside from adding tons of sex to "spice up" when expository dialogue was needed, they also extremely ramped up the violence. A guy gets a knife stabbed through his eye. You see a man get his head ripped off in the first fifteen minutes, and another one beheaded shortly after. A guy rips out a man's throat and pulls his tongue out through it, on screen, unashamed. Glorifying violence much, HBO?
Khal Drogo will mess you up. 

Looking at other fantasy novels it doesn't get better. The Lord of the Rings adaptations were surprisingly faithful, but they still spent a whole lot of time watching our heroes slice up orcs. Scenes that were off-camera in the book were put into the movie simply because they were battle scenes. The original novels certainly had their share of battles, but they weren't important. What was important was the characters, and that was forgotten.

I can't end this without mentioning the Disney adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis knew very well that putting a battle in the middle of a children's book was a slippery slope; should you really be showing kids killing mythological creatures? He did the right thing and cut straight to the aftermath, glossing over it because it really wasn't important. We all knew the Narnian's would win, and what happened after was far more interesting. Of course, the movie adaptation completely ruined this, showing kids murdering tons of stuff on camera, unashamed. The rest of the movie was downright fantastic, extremely faithful, and actually quite touching. But the second that battle comes on I'm pulled out. Also, how the heck is that movie PG?

The point is that movies are just as guilty at glorifying violence as video games, if just not as frequent. I can't think of any fantasy movie off the top of my head that manages to get through their whole thing without a swordfight or somebody killing somebody else. While I think violence can be used in a powerful way (such as in A History of Violence), in the fantasy sub-genre of film it rarely is, ever. Star Wars is actually an excellent example for both good and bad (past movies vs prequels), but I'll get into that later.

Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn novels (the original trilogy) manage to have violence that is fun to read while not being gratuitous

Then we come to our current medium of choice, written books. While books certainly have been violent and gory, for the most part the majority of fantasy novels tend to tone it down substantially when compared to movies and video games. My personal theory on this matter is that the demographic that tends to enjoy graphic, gory violence tends to be males, usually in the age ranges of 13-25. It's also known that males (especially in this age range) tend to be most stimulated by anything when it is taken in visually (which is why pornographic videos tend to cater more towards males rather than females, etc.). Blood and guts in a video game or movie is easy to watch, digest, and get the violence "high" that is somewhat common with this generation of boys and men, while reading it doesn't quite do the same thing.

The point being that, if you want to argue which medium is the most "mature," the point would obviously go towards literature. It also has been around the longest, which one could use as the reasoning, but also there's that visual aspect that makes it different. Books also have the widest scope of the above mediums: they can be informative texts, artistic literary stories, romances, mysteries, fantasies...the list goes on. Unlike movies, however, you rarely find books that are violent just for the sake of being titivating (like the Saw or Hostel movies), nor do you find books overtly pornographic in nature (though the erotica genre could be argued for, but if you compared that with film pornography you'd see a massive distance, undoubtably due to target demographic).

The point is that with books much more is expected from the creators. In movies and video games you can get away with just adding tons of violence without purpose except to be "exciting." With books, that will come off as shallow or even boring. Long, overdrawn action scenes may be exciting for the author to write, but reading it might actually just be tiresome.

So we have our three mediums. In writing, how can we make violence be important?  How can it impact the reader? I'll try and go over this in the next couple of blog posts.


Ryan Pettit said...

When I think about violence in books, I think about Shade's Children by Garth Nix. In that book, children are grown and harvested in a grotesque process in order to create monstrous abominations. These monsters will hunt down and kill/capture any child who escapes from the processing facilities. There are several times in the book when children must fight these things, and the details of the fights are somewhat sparse, which leaves a lot to the imagination. Why is your shirt ripped? Where did you get that cut on your arm? It adds tension and makes the book enjoyable.

Jordan said...

Violence is so prevalent in our entertainment because, as humans, death is the ultimate end-all. Our characters have to walk the line of mortality for us to truly care about them. Also, war brings out the best and worst in us. It is in extreme situations that we a) become totally evil, or b) overcome and stand triumphant.

Fantasy is traditionally based on a period in our history that was ripe with violence. I think books, movies, and games depicting such times would come off false without the ever-present threat of violence. Violence should never be a trivial thing... however, over-the-top violence, like in Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, or Hot Fuzz, can be quite funny... simply because it's so over-done.

As a side note, I think you do yourself a disservice by thinking of the kids in Narnia "murdering tons of stuff on camera, unashamed." Killing in battle, and killing in cold blood are quite different. I would say that perhaps they should have been shown as being touched by the violence, after the battle they had taken part in was over, but in no way can you call what they did--fighting against ultimate evil embodied in the witch--murder.

Nathan Major said...

It's true; there's certainly a difference there. It was still just...really weird. Especially considering I'm pretty sure they kill dwarves, who are their allies in Prince Caspian. Like...how did they all deal with that? They were just cool with it?
I think seeing the battle took something away from it, because it was ultimately a blatant analogy of the battle between Christ and Satan, which (on it's most base level) is a personal battle rather than one involving swords and centaurs and what-have-you. It just really felt out of place to me, even if they were fully justified in the killing.
But hey, the special effects were nice.

Nathan Major said...

And yeah, violence as parody can be great, but also is slippery slope. I've never seen it done right in literature, though it has worked in movies and video games (the examples you gave for movies, and Nier as a game was almost intentionally gratuitous to shock you further later down the road. Also, I'm pretty sure Gears of War is supposed to be funny, even if I might be the only one who sees it that way).

Jordan said...

I laugh my head off while playing Gears. It's funny.

Peter Jenkins said...

See http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/04/come-and-see-the-violence-inherent-in-the-system .

An issue with relying on violence in SF&F (or entertainment in general) is that it reduces identification with the characters (unless the reader is himself, in real life, a martial artist or cage fighter or androgynous-brat-saving-world*, etc.). As someone with no particular fighting skills and poor reflexes, I don't identify well with characters whose approach to solving problems is whacking them with pointy hunks of metal and then defending against the inevitable retaliation. And, to the extent I daydream about visiting a fantasy world, I'm much less likely, as myself, to want to go to one where being able to swat a dagger out of the air is a Required Survival Skill. Fun to read about or watch to an extent, but watching characters solve problems in other ways is equally, if not more, interesting.

*Credit to an FFXII Gamefaq for the best four-word description of the Final Fantasy series.

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