Q&A: Violence in Sloppy Writing

I’ve seen you two use this term before, and often pretty negatively, so could you explain what you mean by ‘Feel Good Violence’ and why you dislike it so?

Usually, Michi writes these up, so this time, I’ll take a swipe at it. Feel Good Violence involves situations where a writer has their character engaging unnecessary violence, without any consequence, and, often with unrealistic resolutions.

In good writing, everything that’s there has to serve a legitimate purpose. A lot of FGV is unnecessary. These are establishing sequences where a character will engage in unneeded violence in order to establish a violent reputation. To be clear, there are situations where a scene like this may be necessary to explain who the character is.

In the real world, violence has consequences. There’s some variant of a cliche to, “win or lose, they’ll know they were in a fight.” It is true. Violence has many consequences. Physically, you will feel it in the morning, with aches and pains from everything you over-stressed. There are also legal and social consequences to consider. Again, there are legitimate cases where someone can dodge some consequences. For example: an assassin may be able to escape a job undetected, avoiding the legal consequences of killing someone. That said, there’s still social consequences for being an assassin. Even if they’re being careful about their real profession, the people around them will still have to deal with the fact that sometimes they’re just not available, and that can affect their relationships.

Something we’ve said before is that violence is a tool. It’s an option your characters have to achieve their goals. However, because we’re talking about (an approximation of) people, the changes you can actually force at gunpoint are somewhat limited. FGV often has unrealistic resolutions. One of the specific examples we’ve cited before were situations where characters chase after the whole, “cut off the head to kill the snake,” routine of simply killing the villain, and having their entire organization instantly crumble. Granted, there are situations where that would make sense, for example a necromancer or a vampire who keeps minions under his thrall, but it makes far less sense when you’re talking about a corrupt corporate CEO, or an organized crime boss.

So, let me give you an example that fails at every point: You have a teenage protagonist, early in the story they see a bully going off on another kid, they step in and beat the bully into submission, forcing them to give up their ways.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen variations of this.

So, is this necessary? No. To that scenario’s credit, it is a reasonable impulse, but unless this scene is setting the entire story in motion, it’s not necessary. Very often, scenes like this are used to say, “hey, look, my character’s a good person,” and, “look how badass they are.” That’s Feel Good Violence.

Are there consequences? Often times, no. In the real world, engaging in unrestrained violence would alienate the character from their friends, especially the love interest, get them in trouble with their school’s administration, and probably leave them with injuries. But, often times, when a scenario like this is presented, the scene could be cut with only minor edits. If the violence is only there to feed the power fantasy. It makes you feel good about the violence presented.

Are the resolutions realistic? This is a little different from consequences, because I’m talking about the specific goals that the character is trying to achieve. Most of the time when you have a scene like this, the goal is to get the bully to stop. Now, any of you who’ve interacted with bullies on a more than casual basis should understand the flaw here. The bully will retaliate against their original target, in more vicious ways, because their incapable of getting retribution against the kid who humiliated them. Bullies aren’t territorial alpha predators, they’re opportunists looking for a chance to work out their frustrations out on targets that can’t fight back. Interceding does not work, it just gives the bully more material to pass down the chain.

There’s also, often, an element of cognitive dissonance in all of this. The protagonist’s behavior is never fully analyzed by the author (or some members of the audience), because they’re the hero, and therefore, whatever they’re doing is inherently different from another character doing the exact same thing. The example I just pulled apart can easily result in situations where the protagonist is as much, or more, of a bully in that situation because they’re picking a fight against someone who has no hope of defeating them, due to superpowers or implausible levels of training. However, thanks to the marvels of cognitive dissonance, they’re the good guy.

Finally, it’s worth talking about tension briefly. As a writer, tension is one of the currencies you have complete control over. You can decide how much pressure your characters are under, and you, alone, can add and remove it as you see fit. The more that’s on the line, the more threats they face, the more problems that threaten to trip them up, the more tension you have. The harder you press your characters, the stronger they’ll become (or the more they’ll start to fray at the edges), and the more your audience will be invested in their struggles.

Violence vents tension at an incredible rate. You can spend 50k words torquing up your characters, and accidentally vent it all in a 500 word fight scene. In abstract terms, fictional violence is expensive as a writer. This is a large part of why I will continue saying you need to be careful, and surgical, with your fight scenes. Particularly when they involve your protagonists. Carelessly used, violence can cause your audience to tune out and wander off.

Feel Good Violence is violence as cheap catharsis. It vents tension, and throws your story’s credibility under the bus for a brief moment of, “didn’t that feel good?” It’s sloppy, and it devalues your work as a writer. It encourages you to rob your future for a brief rush in the present.

Write a character who endures, a character who is creative, a character who is persuasive, or even viciously analytical, and your readers will remember them long after they’ve forgotten about that power fantasy “badasshole” who started their story getting into a bar brawl against werewolves in order to prove they were “awesome.”

Write characters that don’t need to resort to violence at every opportunity. Let your reader always worry that, “no, this time, it won’t work out,” and make sure that occasionally, once in awhile, they’re right.

-Starke

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