I have a serious problem with violence in fantasy fiction. Not with the violence itself, but how the violence is handled. A long while ago (I think it was in the discussion of fantasy races), I talked about the dangers of ‘video game logic’ bleeding into fantasy writing, and today I want to reiterate the shocking revelation I made before.
Books are not video games.
In a fantasy video game, players expect the journey from point A to point B in the plot to be filled with fighting, battles and general violence, because that is nine times out of ten the mechanics of the game – hack’n’slash, RPG, action/adventure, etc.. In fantasy novels, one of the earliest mistakes I think a writer can make is to do the very same: inserting an action scene before, during or after every major (and usually a fair few minor) plot points just for the sake of having an action scene.
I’m not entirely sure where this phenomenon comes from. I know I’ve always been wary of the term ‘swords and sorcery’ in describing fantasy works, because when one deconstructs the term one is left with the implication that the primary substance of the piece is numerous individuals sticking each other with sharpened bits of metal, or shouting eldritch phrases at one another. It suggests that when the story descends into violent confrontation between the various characters (and it usually does so with some regularity), there is nothing to be gained from it by the reader except a quick, visceral thrill. The story, the characters, the very narrative pause for a brief moment of indulgence, then things resume normally.
In such a case, the violence is quite literally word-wank.
Now, obviously I’m not saying fantasy novels (or sci-fi novels, or any novels for that matter) shouldn’t have violent moments. Of course they should have action scenes – one of the beauties of fantasy writing is the immense creative freedom it gives the author to imagine and realise never-before-read scenes, and that lends itself beautifully to creating exciting and innovative action scenes. But such scenes cannot simply exist for their own sake; they should not be inserted purely to excite the reader and for no other purpose. That is practically the textbook definition of pornography, absent only the genitalia.
Think of your story as a religion, and every scene as an acolyte. Each acolyte has its day-to-day events: a life it leads and ambitions it seeks to achieve. Thus each scene has its own events and desire effects upon the reader. But, as an acolyte to the great religion of the story, all the scene’s day-to-day events serve a higher purpose. Everything that happens in the scene advances the story somehow, whether through plot development, character insight/growth, thematic analysis, etc.. If the scene seeks to shock, it does so in pursuance of the story, not simply to make the reader leap from his chair and exclaim ‘holy shit!’. Whatever a scene does, it does so because it furthers the story you are trying to tell; that’s why you as an author choose to pick that scene from the character’s life and lay it out for the reader in glorious detail. It’s why writer’s rarely dissect a character’s breakfast every morning, unless it serves some purpose to the story.
Every scene has to have a point, a purpose greater than itself. Action scenes are no different. Even in pulp stories, which relish in visceral thrills, the action still serves a greater purpose than just existing to thrill the audience. At the very least, it advances the story, but often does more into the bargain: the chase scene emphasises the power and determination of the pursuing force, the final confrontation between protagonist and antagonist acts as a venting for all the conflict built up between the pair throughout the story. This higher purpose gives the action scene meaning, elevating it above the stereotypical ‘and then the hero had to fight his way through another hallway of minions’ action scene – because there’s nothing to be gained from that scene, it serves no purpose beyond existing.
The best recent example I can think of comes from the story-writing in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. As one might imagine from a T.V. series centred around gladiatorial combat, it is not a story short on action scenes and copious violence – I don’t think an episode went by which didn’t have at least two of the main cast throwing down in the coliseum and doing some poor bastard in with a sharpened bit of metal. But each time the fighting started, it was serving a point: a character might develop during the fight, cause or solve some complication in the plot, or at the very least the outcome of the battle would have some lasting repercussion to the story.
This final point is, I think, the most general and important. Action scenes are not asides to the story: parallel dimensions the characters are sucked into to do battle before returning to the realm of plot. An action scene is as much a link in the chain as a scene of character development, plot revelation, so on and so forth. It is caused by the plot that precedes it, and it has effects upon the plot that follows. Too many fantasy writers seem to operate on the parallel dimension understanding of action scenes: the characters fight, then go on with their business. There is no, for want of a better word, feedback following the violence. And this is video game logic at its zenith: I remember playing Dragon Age: Origins and slaughtering my way through demonspawn, then coming out the other side of the battle into a story-based cut-scene where my character interacted cool as you please, but was drenched from eyebrows to kneecaps in gore. To me, that’s the perfect summation of the problem with violence in storytelling. It doesn’t serve a point because it’s never reacted to.
The reaction doesn’t have to be big. Not every character is going to be thrown into some deep, spiritual crisis about the supposed righteousness of his actions after every confrontation. Many will, quite rightly given the circumstances, shrug their shoulders and tell themselves that their opponents had it coming, or it was a them/me situation. But even in that situation, it’s still a reaction, it still means that the action scene was an actual part of the story that has some (albeit perhaps small) impact on the rest of the plot, and it still gives us some sort of deeper insight into the characters.
For a novel about a conflicted assassin in a post-apocalyptic city, Crescent Knife has fewer actions scenes than I might have first envisaged, and that’s because very early on in the creation process I stripped out all the unnecessary combat from the story. This is supposed to be a novel about a trained killer trying to find some reason for his actions, a comforting cause to justify all the murders he’s carried out. Throwing excess action scenes at him is therefore counter-intuitive – it risks stunting that development – and so every time I do throw the protagonist into a fight scene, you can be damn sure it’ll have lasting effects on the story, teaching either the protagonist or the reader something about his personality. Indeed, the very first chapter (coming soon, trust me!) counterpoints his indifference towards killing to defend himself from armed thugs against his conflicted reaction to murdering an associate in order to cover his trail. Every act of violence therefore means something to the story, because it pushes the protagonist one way or another along the spectrum of his development, damning or redeeming him in turn.
Violence is a big thing. If not for the people committing the violence, then at least for those caught in the immediate aftermath of it. Blood may not always beget blood, but blood does flow. It moves with purpose, pushed by arterial force and pulled by gravity. And the same has to be true with violence in our stories: pushed by what has come before in the story, and running onwards into what comes next. If you’re going to have your characters throw down with one another, make sure you’re not going to flinch over getting blood on your manuscript.