Q&A: Violent Escalation

My characters are criminals are associate with other criminals most of the time. (Think Sutherland) Their first instinct is to believe problems can be solved with violence (which often creates more problems). So the violence does have various consequences. How can I portray that violence/crime isn’t something that will solve your problems if I’m limited by POV characters who believe it will or that others ‘deserve’ violence.

The short answer is, “you’re not limited to your POV characters’ beliefs.” You can show the violence getting out of control. This is the natural consequence of people who believe violence solves problems.  Violence leads to reprisal, reprisals lead to escalation, and before you know it you’ve got a full on crime war on your hands, or the cops running surveillance. That’s your outcome.

These kind of brushfire crime stories are widespread, in both fiction and the real world. Someone thinks that a bullet will solve their problems, which in turn causes more blowback.

You’re not limited to your POV characters’ perceptions. You also control what happens to them. Just because your character believes killing someone will solve their problems, doesn’t mean that it will. Violence could easily lead to someone associated with the victim (or the victim themselves, if they slaying doesn’t go to plan), coming for their head later. Failing that, there’s also the police investigation to consider. The more force your characters use, the more attention they’ll be getting from the cops.

This is assuming that the violence doesn’t get out of hand in the moment. Sure, your protagonist only meant to rough them up, but now they’ve got a corpse. This was more than they were planning on, and as a result, the consequences will be significantly more severe. In some ways, violence is a binary choice: You decide to engage in it or not. You can try to moderate the outcome, but you have no guarantees. There are plenty of real world examples where a trivial scuffle produced a corpse, leading to unexpected consequences.

There’s a reductive, and somewhat moralistic, “crime never pays,” approach that is justifiable when done well. Your characters do bad things, bad things happen to them. It’s a valid approach, but not completely necessary. You can track cause and effect, without needing to turn it into a morality tale.

Also worth considering that a lot of these narratives do tend towards tragedy. The narrative will build to a climax mid-way through the story, and then things will start to unravel for the protagonists from there. Characters die or are apprehended, plans fall apart because of people who were wronged during your characters’ ascent to the top. Seeing the changing weather, allies may abandon your protagonists. Enemies who’ve been sharpening their knives finally see the opportunity to make good on their threats. All it takes is a single misstep at any point, and the story can quickly degenerate into a figurative feeding frenzy.

It’s worth remembering that just because your characters say something, that doesn’t mean you’re endorsing it as a writer. What they say, and what happens weigh on your position.

You can use supporting characters as the conscience for your protagonists, or as venues for your position. There are plenty of people who would argue caution in the face of violence. These could range from family outside of the life, to veterans who managed to escape intact, or even police offering honest advice. These discussions can risk being cliche, so, some care will be needed, to ensure the dialog is properly tailored to what they know and believe, rather than a simple, “violence bad,” skit. If your character ignores that, it’s on them; they were warned.

Tragedy feeds on character flaws. Someone who believes, in spite of all evidence, that they can force their will on the world around them is an excellent candidate for taking the fall.

How do you deal with characters who think that violence will solve their problems? You let natural cause and effect tear them down. In your story, you’re responsible for applying the consequences. Wreck them.

-Starke

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