Q&A: Badly written Violence

What are your biggest pet peeves when it comes to portrayals of something violent?

A few things come to mind: Violence without purpose, violence without consequence, and violence without thought.

A basic piece of writing advice holds: Everything in your story needs to serve a function. If it’s not building your world, characters, or advancing your plot, cut it. You may have written something you enjoyed, but if it doesn’t serve a purpose in your story, it should not be there. Violence is no exception; it can do any of those. The best fight scenes do all three at once.

When someone inserts a fight scene because, “there should be a fight here,” that’s where I check out. It’s easy to understand how this happens. I don’t have a problem with gratuitous violence, but if it’s not doing something for the story, it should have been cut.

There’s a few wrinkles here. Visual media (both comics and in video) can get away with stylish violence. If you are here for the spectacle they can satisfy. The extreme end of this is probably Kill Bill: Vol. 1, where the entire film is just one spectacle fight after another with the context stripped out. Except, each one does what a scene needs to. They explore the characters, build the world, and advance the plot, almost entirely through violence.

The other wrinkle is games. Not just video games; any game. Violence can be adapted into a rewarding play loop. You can build your entire play experience around violence and have an enjoyable game. Many strategy games build of the idea of managing violence, whether that’s a battle or a war.

Roleplaying games, both tabletop and electronic often have a heavy focus on combat systems. Some of this is because D&D was originally developed by tabletop wargamers, and that influence cast a long shadow on the genre. If you’ve ever participated in a tabletop D&D campaign, you’ll be familiar with entire nights lost to a few minutes of combat. You can build entire RPGs around nothing but violence. In video games this where things like Diablo came from. Taking the experience of traditional RPGs and distilling it into a pure combat gauntlet.

If I’m being completely fair, any scene can suffer from lacking purpose. This isn’t a problem exclusive to violence, however, it is easier to accidentally build your world and characters by letting them talk.

The second issue is somewhat related to the first, violence without consequences is deeply unsatisfying. If the violence changes nothing, then it has no purpose in the story, but it goes beyond that. It’s not like I’m looking for specific, or even negative, consequences from violence. I’d just like to see some indication that your character was almost killed a couple pages back.

Violence is messy, it’s destructive. Having characters roll over from a fight like nothing happened without any aftermath just causes me to ask, “why bother?”

Violence can instantly remove characters from your story. It can introduce new challenges, such as lasting injuries, further complicating characters’ lives, or even just draining resources. If it’s not doing anything, why use it? This is a very dynamic tool for a writer. It kills me when an author pulls it out and does nothing with it.

This last one is a little more complex. When a character’s approach to violence is irreconcilable to the rest of their identity, that’s a hard no. This can crop up in a lot of ways, but it starts with the author thinking about violence as a flavor for their scene, and not a part of their story.

“My character is a good person, they would never kill!” as they leave someone stranded, and wounded, hundreds of miles from civilization, in a hostile environment that will ensure they don’t make it out alive. This is a Bond villain routine being passed off as moral high ground.

Shooting to wound ends up in here. The author wanted to use guns, without the morally icky idea of killing people, “so let’s just set those firearms to stun,” like they’re fucking phasers. (And, no, shooting to wound is not a thing. You can bleed to death from a limb almost as easily as a center mass hit.)

Violence is ethically complicated. You can have an ethical system to moderate yourself, but if you’re going to engage in violence, you will harm others. If “being a good person” is important to you, you need to spend some time meditating the ethics of violence. So of course, you get the authors who are sure that, so long as their character doesn’t personally drop the hammer, whatever horrors they inflict on their foes are entirely acceptable.

In fairness, I have a pretty low tolerance for hypocrisy, so this may be related.

If your character is going to engage in violence, be honest with yourself about the kind of person they would be. Violence, and the will to commit violence affect you as a person. This holistic, and affects the entirety of you you are. Including characters who have that capacity affects your story. Again, the entirety of your story. “But my character’s a good person, they would never…” And that’s when I start pounding my head into the desk, because anything other response would end with, “…and that’s when I shot them, Your Honor.”

Like I said, violence is a fanatic tool for an author. I love it. However, if you’re going to use it, actually use it. Don’t just pull it out as a way to break up a few scenes, and go right back to where you started.

The ethics of violence is an incredibly deep subject, there’s a lot of stuff to talk about, and it absolutely kills me when an author tries to table the entire thing in favor of logic that would have been embarrassing in a Saturday morning cartoon.


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