It got me to wondering why there aren’t more fantasy (or science fiction) novels that deal with issues outside of violence?
I’m working on an idea for a secondary world urban fantasy about a young man who enters a very opulent city looking to become a master chef. The story follows his journey through various culinary-related careers — farmer, butcher, fisherman, baker, patissier, commis — until he opens his own restaurant and becomes a known quantity within the city. Although it doesn’t even sound like it would need to be set in a fantasy city, I’m still making it a fantasy because I’m comfortable with fantasy and I also want to explore the magic in food. Outside of writing and reading, cooking is a passion of mine.
However, as I’ve been outlining and drafting this novel (working title: Stock), it occurred to me that I was writing a fantasy novel with almost no violence (outside of a fistfight or two). The plot is resolved through hard work and cleverness. It got me to wondering why there aren’t more fantasy (or science fiction) novels that deal with issues outside of violence?
Searching the web, I found a few really interesting articles on violence, such as this one from Kotaku. A similar thread on creating non-violent narratives came up on the IGDA mailing list recently. Is it time that genre media diversifies into non-violent narratives as well?
Most of my favorite novels are violent: The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Gone Away World, The Book of the New Sun, This Book is Full of Spiders, Rumo, Harry Potter. Violence is a part of these worlds, and it’s handled in a respectful manner. Also: most of the violence in these books mean something. When someone dies in Locke Lamora or Harry Potter, it shatters the characters.
There are also a lot of novels I enjoy where violence is minimal or non-existent: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Alchemaster’s Apprentice, Desolation Road, The Bards of Bone Plain. The characters in these novels solve problems with their minds and not their magic swords. It opens up a whole new avenue of storytelling. But, I’m having a difficult time coming up with non-violent novels that aren’t humorous or middle grade. Going middle grade, there are all sorts of wonderful books that aren’t violent: Maniac McGee, Stargirl, Holes, Dancing Carl, Wayside School is Falling Down (a personal favorite of mine). However, these are all real world stories. Middle grade fantasy is also violent.
Violence is easy.
I don’t have a problem with violence in media. Growing up playing Doom, Quake, and Goldeneye gave me a high tolerance for stylized violence. I do have a problem with real(istic) violence, of the sort portrayed in Battlefield and Call of Duty, but not enough of a problem to forgo these titles altogether. Real world violence disturbs me greatly, whether it’s footage from a war zone or from a UFC fight. It makes me physically ill to see. With the former, I force myself to watch it. The recent tragedy at the Boston Marathon was very trying, but I monitored the coverage because I felt it was an important event.
But even with a near constant barrage of dismemberment, in book form, it’s still easy to skip over violence because we can choose not to visualize or acknowledge it.
Find a root of this media fetish for violence is difficult. Most major fantasy releases deal almost exclusively with violence it seems: A Song of Ice and Fire, The First Law, The Prince of Thorns, etc. But even with a near constant barrage of dismemberment, in book form, it’s still easy to skip over violence because we can choose not to visualize or acknowledge it. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgress works so well because Nadsat forces you to confront the shocking violence.
So many fantasy novels that are focused on finding the magic sword or crystal gauntlet or whatnot. In science fiction, it’s always about raising an ancient rail canon from the surface of a dying star or carpet bombing the planet of the flufftoids. In horror, it’s about turning birds inside out, or making lampshades out of skin.
Violence is easy.
How many times did our parents tell us this very thing? Using words is more difficult than simply socking someone in the jaw. Same thing in writing. Violence has consequences that most books don’t delve enough into. I’m not saying books shouldn’t have violence. Violence is a part of our world and I assume all other worlds as well. But why are our protagonists most commonly fencers and jousters and knights and battlemages? Can’t we write compelling stories about dancers and merchants and chemists and cooks?
But this is just a look at violence as a quantitative force in fantasy. If we take for granted the fact that four out of every five fantasy books will have a non-negligible amount of violence in them, then should the discussion be less about whether fantasy has too much violence, and more about the purpose the violence serves?
I think this is the real discussion. I’ve suggested that violence works best when we’re forced as readers to confront both the action and consequence. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess does a brilliant job doing this because of Nadsat. By being forced to decode what is going on in the work, we become intimate with the violence. Violence is shown to permeate this world in much the same way oxygen does. The same could be said of Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Violence is visceral and harried in this work. Where most of the violence is perpetrated against non-human characters, we still are forced to confront the victim in the form of the Lord of the Flies. The pig’s-head-cum-Baal becomes a manifestation of the darker side of morality. Violence becomes a physical, almost weighty presence in this world.
Good fantasy presents violence in a way that affects both the characters involved as well as the world in which the violence takes place. In The Lies of Locke Lamora, the violence is personal, intimate; the consequences deep and traumatic. When someone in Locke’s life is killed, it affects him at his most base level. The need for vengeance drives Locke into a very dark place, and the lengths he goes to make the violators pay are shocking. Violence changes Locke, just as it would to someone in our primary world.
A Song of Ice and Fire is very violent, but in many circumstances, the violence has meaning and far reaching consequences. After a fight or a battle comrades are grieved over, foes are cursed, tallies are taken. However, the series seems to focus on the consequences of shocking violence: an assassination, an ambush, an orchestrated martial campaign, a naval attack. Casual violence — especially sexual violence — often goes without comment or consequence. This is the type of violence that I believe detracts from a work; a video game type of violence where the only purpose is to increase the body count by one.
Violence without purpose is not only harmful to a work, it’s dangerous. It’s a sociopathic type of violence that may have unintended consequences for the work as a whole. There are times when this violence is necessary and fits the work, but more often than not, it comes off as cheap and vulgar.
The oxymoronic phrase “realism in fantasy” is often used to justify copious amounts of violence in a work.
When I try to come up with fantasy books where the main plot does not revolve around violence, however, things become difficult. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a wonderful, tense novel with very little violence. Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip has more the threat of violence than actual violence, and although the plot sets up a violent climax, it is actually resolved through the cleverness of its characters (something not often seen in fantasy). The short stories of Ken Liu very rarely feature violence.
The oxymoronic phrase “realism in fantasy” is often used to justify copious amounts of violence in a work. Okay. As much of a problem as I have with that phrase, I’ll indulge it. Use violence to make a work seem “more real.” For this to remain true, the violence needs to be visceral, but tempered by reaction and emotion. If violence occurs, it should be explored.
Think of the real world. If I punched you in the mouth, neither of us would walk away and think about what spells we may need on our upcoming journey to the Dark Lands. No, you would either punch me back, cover up, or flee. I would keep punching, give chase, or try to hide from the fuzz. Either way, the only thoughts in our head for the next few hours or days would be related to the punch. You may take up self-defense courses. I may become paranoid about going to prison. I may try to make amends. You may confront me. Our lives would be changed, possibly for good. It wouldn’t be a punch in a vacuum. Punches do not exist in vacuum.
Is it time for fantasy to look at alternative plots, where violence doesn’t extend beyond a fistfight and tension is created in different ways?
Extrapolate that further to the extreme violence of murder and genocide often seen in fantasy and you can see what I’m trying to get at. Even when tens of thousands of people die in a war, they are killed by other people. All these people — violators and victims — have minds and lives and histories and desires. Violence is an active process that characters engage in. So should be the aftermath. There needs to be reflection and consequence. Even if a character’s reflection is that they don’t want to reflect on what they just did or what happened to them, that counts as a reflection and says a lot about their character. To jump back to a quantitative approach to fantasy, I think the big misinterpretation is: “Stories need conflict, therefore stories need violence.” Conflict does not necessarily mean violence. We all go through conflicts everyday and end with anything but pints of blood.
What works do you think handle violence the best? The worst? Is it time for fantasy to look at alternative plots, where violence doesn’t extend beyond a fistfight and tension is created in different ways? Is violence the easy way out?
Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in two parts (Part One, Part Two) on Adam Callaway’s blog.
I think Adam, while bringing up some interesting and salient points, misses the mark in this essay. Specifically, the title itself is rather misleading as it poses a question that isn’t particularly valid.
All types of fiction either do or do not deal with the consequences of violence, depending on the author. To suggest, as the title does, that this is an issue somehow particular to the fantasy genre is (possibly unintentionally) disingenuous. The title also suggests that fantasy at one time knew and cared about the consequences of violence, as though there were some generally agreed upon standard that the genre has fallen/is falling from. This is simply not the case.
One final thought about how violence relates to fantasy: In many of the sub-genres of fantasy (high, epic, dark, sword & sorcery) violence (often even over-the-top violence) is either an expected or even arguably integral trope, or the conventions of the genre lead to larger than life plot consequences which often mean confrontation on a world-shattering scale. I do not argue that violence should be included for violence’s sake, nor that violence should be consequence free to the psyches of the characters involved (if they are human and are possessed of more or less normal human psychological reactions). But I would caution any writer who is considering removing violence from their work for a moral, rather than creative reason to think carefully before not delivering on a genre’s expectations. Readers read what they read because that is what they enjoy. To package something as what it is not is cheating a reader out of the experience he or she has paid for and expects.
Sounds like someone looking for a USP and some publicity for their own book.
The rest of it makes little sense.
“So many fantasy novels that are focused on finding the magic sword or crystal gauntlet or whatnot.”
Really, Adam, they are? What fantasy have you been reading recently? Or are you just building straw men. You put this statement immediately after listing a number of books… none of which do anything like that. It’s been pointed out to you before.
“Most major fantasy releases deal almost exclusively with violence it seems: A Song of Ice and Fire, The First Law, The Prince of Thorns, etc.”
Ah… no. You think these books deal almost exclusively with violence? Have you read them? I find it hard to believe. ASOIAF is almost exclusively about violence is it. Someone asks you what those five books are about and your answer is ‘violence’? Silly.
Adam’s perceptions are colored deeply by the world he inhabits. Most of us live in a world that is largely non-violent. It may very well be that Adam has never been punched in the mouth – it’s quite possible that he will live a long life and never be punched in the mouth. Thus if he actually is punched in the mouth, it will be a highly significant event for him. But even here in our modern worlds, there are those who live in environments where getting punched in the mouth is a routine and common occurrence. And for those people, Adam is completely off base when he claims that it won’t be forgotten about in an hour. Certainly, living in a violent environment has a serious effect on people, and the environment isn’t forgotten. But an individual act, particularly something as relatively benign as a single punch, would be quickly forgotten. And a single punch IS benign in some circumstances. For most of history, human beings have lived in violent environments. Violence, both received and given, was a routine part of life. And routine events often don’t have significant consequences. It’s only Adam’s unusual and privileged perspective, arising from living in a largely non-violent society, that makes him assume that they should.
@John — Just to chime in with my own thoughts, I think Adam’s response to your final question would be, “A Song of Ice and Fire, is about the war for control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.” He mentions this in the original iteration of this essay, though I, perhaps erroneously, edited it out of this version.
His exact words,
I hope that clears up some of Adam’s position.
Thanks for the essay, Adam, and for reposting it here, Aidan. I read something similar by Jo Walton (I think) a year or two ago that challenged me to think about fantasy books I’d read that had little to no violence in them. The only one I could come close with was Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey.
Like you, I enjoy books with lots of violence it seems. But I would be thrilled if we got more books that weren’t necessarily violent – that continued to broaden the borders of fantasy fiction. It’s easy to find short fantasy fiction that isn’t violent – we publish it often at PodCastle (along with very violent stories). But I wonder why it’s more difficult to find in fantasy novels, or if I’m just not seeing them as much?
Anyway, thanks again for making me think – and I look forward to hearing more about your book.
And has anyone ever suggested that GRRM has ignored the consequences of war in his books? I doubt it because it’s a huge focus and it would be silly to suggest that he has. So again, using ASOIAF as your first example in a piece headed ‘has fantasy forgotten the consequences of violence’ and saying that it is almost exclusively about violence is silly. It is about warfare (among many other things) and the consequences of that warfare are a major focus.
Dan J: I’m not trying to argue here, but I find your post awfully confusing. While I agree that Adam is privileged in comparison to a lot of people (he’s white, male, and American, after all) I think it’s probably a good use of that privilege to question violence, rather than just accepting it as a natural part of life. And, I grant you, it is a natural part of life – I don’t doubt that. But I do doubt the part where we have to accept that without question.
I very much doubt that cultures where face-punches are doled out on a daily basis are very happy that things are that way, even if the punch doesn’t scar them for life. At a certain point, people become desensitized and violence becomes meaningless, but that’s not a reward, or something we should strive for. Violence shouldn’t be commonplace for anyone. And while I don’t think it was your intent to insult anyone (nor is it mine to insult you) I do think it’s an insult to other cultures to suggest that they somehow feel violence less acutely than we pampered Westerners. For further evidence of that, search the internet for footage of the military officers during the Vietnam war explaining to the public that the Vietnamese don’t put the same premium on life that we do in the west. It would be laughable if it wasn’t completely insane and insidious.
So, while I understand your point of view, I don’t think I could accept such an ambiguous view of violence. Hurting people is bad – even if we were once animals, even if we did it all the time, even if we still do it quite a bit. We know that now, or at least we should. We’re certainly evolved enough to know it, though perhaps not evolved enough to avoid the self-indulgent impulses that often lead us in to violence.
And I DO read violent books and will continue to do so. I don’t want to read about grandmothers and kittens, or bakery workers happily rolling dough. But I also acknowledge the fact that we’re heading down a dark road when we start thinking of violence as meaningless.
But again – you might not have been implying that it is meaningless. Maybe you were just making the observation that Adam only feels this way because he’s privileged. If that’s the case – my bad.
@John — If we’ve established that, while violent, A Song of Ice and Fire successfully explores the consequences of violence (which I agree with), maybe it would be interesting to dig into the idea of why it’s so successful at doing so. What does A Song of Ice and Fire do that makes the violence (and Martin’s famous proclivity for suddenly killing off major characters, who readers are emotionally attached to) integral to his series, where it might seem gratuitous in the works of other authors.
I think that one of the things that makes Sansa Stark’s storyline so compelling is that the methods to her survival in the world are entirely non-violent, yet she has to react to the violent and deadly actions and ambitions of those around her (without spoiling, specifically the deaths at the end of A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows.
If we’ve established that, while violent, A Song of Ice and Fire successfully explores the consequences of violence then we’ve debunked the credentials and approach of the poster.
John, I feel like the conversation can (and should) extend past the text of the original essay.
An interesting idea. I agree that The Night Circus is notable and unusual for its lack of direct violence — Sharon Shinn’s Troubled Waters is also interesting in that regard. I think that sometimes taking violent action to solve a problem can be a shortcut for empowerment for a character. I remember that one of the notes I got on my original version of Generation V was that everyone was walking all over my main character, and after I had him beat up his awful roommate readers responded more positively. It’s an interesting topic.
I think the current generation of “grim” fantasy (Ice and Fire, Joe Abercrombie, etc) is in large part a reaction to the older style of “heroic” fantasy, starting with Tolkien. The heroic tradition is packed full of utterly consequence-free violence — the heroes slay orcs and foemen by the score, and nobody even thinks twice about what happens afterward. Only the occasional casualty among the “good guys” matters. I know GRRM explicitly wanted to show the “reality” of the traditional knights & castles world, in opposition to Mallory, Tolkien, et al and their expurgated version.
In a larger sense, I have to ask — why pick on fantasy? Essentially every genre (aside from literary, maybe) is full of violence, as are various other popular entertainments; this commentary could apply just as easily to SF, video games, movies, etc. It’s not a “media fetish” in the sense of something pushed in from the outside — basically, many people (probably *most* people) like to read/watch this kind of entertainment. It’s nothing new, either; go back a couple of thousand years and you’ll find Greek heroes slaying and massacring just as cheerfully as Aragorn or The Hound.
Django: I picked on fantasy because it’s what I read, write, and love. You are more than correct that violence extends to most facets of life. My point in the post was in asking whether or not fantasy fiction uses violence too often as a plot device. It seems that in a genre known for its complete lack of boundaries, that there would be room and cause to write other types of plots. Again, not “non-violent” plots, but plots that rely less on violence to move them forward.
John, Adam said: “A Song of Ice and Fire is very violent, but in many circumstances, the violence has meaning and far reaching consequences.”
I don’t think Adam is bashing on ASoIaF the way you think he is. I don’t agree with everything Adam says about it (see lack of consequences for casual violence), but there’s also a broader conversation happening about fantasy, and some of the self-imposed limits authors are putting on it. I think the larger conversation is less about GRRM, I think, and more about authors in GRRM’s shadow, as well as other authors working in other subgenres of fantasy.
With all due respect, I think you may be missing the mark here. You point out that Martin, Lawrence, and Abercrombie deal almost exclusively with violence. I would say that each of those writers’ work is about the effects of violence, (almost always detrimental by the way) amoung other things. I would venture that all of these excellent authors are not using violence as simply to move the plot forward, but as a way to illuminate the effects of that violence on society, their characters, and even in the readers. I would venture that Martin made death matter in fantasy novels like no one else. While Lawrence, shows the effects of violence on the psyche with his unflinchingly sociopathic protagonist Jorg. Abercrombie shows the regret and soul crushing weariness that being a man of violence brings in his portrayal of Logen Ninefingers. I think to say that violence is used as a crutch or overdone is a bit of a gross over simplification, if it were only to keep things moving, like explosions in a Michael Bay film, I would agree with you. But these authors are saying a hell of a lot more than that.
But that’s just my two cents.
Django, you realize you’re only talking about one subset of fantasy, right? To be fair, all the subsets seem to overly rely on violence. And I love dark, violent fantasy (Gaiman, Mieville, etc.) But I don’t see why if there are exceptions in “mainstream” lit, there can’t be exceptions in fantasy lit too.
I like to think Fantasy is the biggest and broadest genre there is, and as much as I enjoy the violence, I’d like to see more of the non-violence in those worlds and stories too.
Dave — The “grim” sort of fantasy is definitely only a single sub-genre, as is the “heroic” tradition that proceeded it. But (as Adam points out) in fantasy in general (I would say, in genre fiction in general!) books that don’t rely on violence are definitely the exceptions to the rule.
Dave, I think he’s just as wrong about all the other titles he cites. I just used GRRM as it was his first example and more people would know for themselves how hollow the accusation was there. He’s just creating a mythical other to rail against. I read these books. I don’t see it. I’m far from convinced he reads them.
If he was just saying ‘I’d like to read non-violent books & hey, [promotion] I’m writing one [/promotion]’, that would be fine. What he’s doing is falsely accusing specific books (& the genre as a whole) of forgetting the consequences of violence, which is patently untrue for the specific books and empty words for the larger arena.
A fantasy story about cooking without violence? It was called “Ratatouille”. :)
@Brian — Heh. Perfect.
John: The title of the article was a bit misleading, but it seems like you’re taking the title to be my thesis, which is not. I’m trying to explore many questions in this article, “How is violence explored in fantasy? Why is there so much of it? What does it mean when violence is causal? Where are the less-violent fantasy books?” Exploring those questions, I look at various examples of books that are seen as violent and those that are seen as less-violent. Take my example of A Song of Ice and Fire (which is the only example people seem to hooking on to). I do acknowledge that a lot of the violence in ASoIaF is justified and explored, however there are also many instances of violence that are glossed over, where the aggressors and victims act like nothing happened. This is the type of violence that I think fantasy — as well as literature as a whole — should try to avoid, as it cheapens the work. When violence happens in a casual sense (and it’s clear that it’s not purposefully casual) then, to me, the author has forgotten that violence has consequences.
I definitely agree with the point about casual sexual violence in ASOIAF and its lack of consequences – I stopped reading after 2 books because I found it unpleasant.
WRT the rest – I guess it all comes down to our old friend the hypothalamus, the little area of the brain that controls the 4 Fs: fighting, fleeing, feeding and mating :) What excites our little primate brains is content that stimulates the hypothalamus, and it’s been shown that reading fiction is neurologically very similar to the equivalent real-life experience.
As for why there’s a lot of violence in fantasy, well, most of it takes its cues from medieval or Renaissance cultures where violence was commonplace. A world where beating your wife and children was considered normal; where boys of 12 or 14 were routinely taken onto the battlefield as pages and squires; where gruesome public executions were a family day out. To some extent, yes, violence should have consequences, if you want to connect emotionally with your audience, but at the same time I don’t think the characters would be anywhere near as traumatised by violence as someone living in a quiet English suburb. It’s a tricky balance, and one that every writer has to address for themselves.
For my own part, my swordsman protagonist avoids violence as much as possible because he lives in a world without magical healing – but as a former soldier he will kill if attacked, without compunction. There are other ways to present life-and-death situations that keep the reader on the edge of their seat, after all. Often the threat of violence is more effective than the clash of swords…
It would seem facile to say that in a book that is clearly concerned with the consequences of acts violence both en masse (the war) and individually (Jaimie’s hand for example or Bran’s injury) the fact that some subset of violent acts are not explored is a failing. No successful story can get bogged down at every single turn just because it’s become a special interest of yours. GRRM was driven by issues of focus and momentum, not avoiding someone saying this particular violent act was only mentioned briefly.
I disagree that literature as a whole should try to avoid violence that is not fully explored. Literature as a whole shouldn’t do any single thing. How straitjacketing is that? It depends what story is being told, what point is being made, what emotion is on the line. We’re talking about literature. For adults. It’s not an instructions manual. We’re not educating children. Society won’t crumble if one act of violence goes unchallenged on the page of a book. Your personal morality won’t be threatened if a fictional character gets off free and clear with wickedness.
Write your book and good luck to you. Me, I’m for diversity.
Seems to me that you and Adam are arguing for the same ending, John.
John: I would ask you to focus your argument against my words and to not make baseless assumptions about my morality. Once again, I will say that you misinterpreted me. My line on casual violence was: “When violence happens in a casual sense (and it’s clear that it’s not purposefully casual) then, to me, the author has forgotten that violence has consequences.”
I am all for diversity in literature. That was one of the points of the article. Where are all the fantasies that deal with subject matter other than violence? I am not morally opposed to violence in literature. Far from it (which I pointed out multiple times in the article). I’m just becoming numb to the sheer amount of violence in literature and want a change of pace.
Is it really untrue and empty words? I think its equally subjective and fallacious to point at fantasy and to say “Hey, there’s too much superficial violence there!” than to say “Hey, there isn’t!”
Do we have numbers?
I know most of the high budget movies today are very inclined to the “violence without consequences” tropes. The count is easy to do, it comes from the newspaper premiere lists.
But books? That’s really hard to measure.
Violence and conflict ARE mainstays of fantasy–because they work well as shorthands for other sorts of conflicts. I wouldn’t call it lazy, but it stems from the same reasons why fantasy is full of kingdoms and not constitutional democracies and republics–its simpler, for author and reader. Does that make it right? No, but it does simplify matters and make for more accessible drama.
To address some of your later points, which I find far more compelling than a perceived dismissal of the noted novels as violent for its own sake. I’d have to agree that the aftermath of violence is often more compelling than the violence itself. And their are plenty of authors that deal in that aftermath, Kameron Hurley & Jeff Salyards come immediately to mind. Zachary Jernigan as well, though not as obviously. Now none of these have the instat cache of name dropping GRRM, but I would venture that their novels while plenty violent spend far more time discussing the after effects of bloodshed on their characters than endless sprays of meaningless blood. Vioence is traumatic and I think that perhaps in fantasy that trauma is often minimized or handled more subtly than you seem to prefer but it is there. Is Arya’s decent into sociopathy not a direct result of all of the bloodshed and emotional trauma that follows Eddard’s execution? Is Ninefingers attempt to leave violence behind not a reaction to the countless lives he’s taken and the weight those lives settling on his shoulders. I agree that violence is not the only way but I don’t think modern fantasy is largely guilty as a genre of over simplifying its impact.
“When violence happens in a casual sense (and it’s clear that it’s not purposefully casual) then, to me, the author has forgotten that violence has consequences.”
Well. “not purposefully casual” So not on purpose then, or not with purpose? When someone does something not on purpose… what is that? A mistake? An error? An oversight? So when the author has made an oversight or error about violence “the author has forgotten that violence has consequences”
Well yes. I can agree that when an author has forgotten the consequences of violence they have forgotten that violence has consequences.
Putting tautology aside though… how do you assert that the instances of casual violence are not purposefully casual? That seems to me an impossibility. It seems instead that you’ve decided the instances of casual violence are not purposeful and that the authors have made an error. That I would disagree with.
Thank you, Adam, for bringing these issues up for discussion again.
We who live in houses with big glass windows (that say “pike me, please!”) are living in a kind of security unimaginable for most of the millenia of human existence. It seems to me sometimes that we are so far from violence that our sensitivity to it is muted. Thus, a smack doesn’t register, it has to be a beating. A beating doesn’t register, the victim has to be left bloody and broken. A bit of the rack or the whip doesn’t register as torture anymore; it has to be vicious and extreme. Thus, in fiction, we are seeing villains of such viciousness that Sauron would look askance; torture that Stalin would find excessive; cruelty that de Sade would stop for and take notes.
Someone who has been beaten can’t read of beatings like that; it hurts too much. I do not wish for us to undergo sensitivity training: Actual war zones leave very little time to write. But taking responsibility for gratuitous violence, gratuitous rapes, gratuitous maimings and cruelty, I think makes for better writing. It’s like swearing, in a play. It loses its power if these weighted words are used to often; the audience tunes it out. But used once, or twice, such words fall like hammer blows. That way, you don’t have to hit so hard to have an effect.
Lieutenant Dingledine, my point wasn’t that violence is meaningless, at least certainly not in the sense I assume that you mean it. There’s enough to say on this subject to fill a few volumes, but my main point was simply this: Adam seems to be claiming that authors are not addressing violence realistically because they don’t address it in the same manner as it would be addressed if it occurred in modern society to a modern person. A punch in the nose to Adam is a very different event than a punch in the nose to someone in a violent society and the reaction to the exact same event will be very different. A character who “… think[s] about what spells [he] may need on [his] upcoming journey to the Dark Lands…” after a punch in the nose may very well be reacting more realistically than one who takes the actions Adam suggested.
Aidan, I hope you will forgive me to jumping in to say something that has nothing to do with the post, but more to do with the comments, and likewise that you will forgive me for being rather blunt about it.
The profound level of mischaracterization, rudeness, and just plain douchebaggery in a post that is essentially about something as innocuous as “fantasy haz violence and I don’t lyk it” (sorry, Adam, but it had to be done to keep this lightly toned) reminds me why often having any debate in this community produces about the same end value as arguing with anti-Obama (or anti-Romney) people on YouTube. You can disagree with Adam (I do on many points), but I fail to see the value of using an aggressive tone, borderline ad hominem attacks, and so on for what amounts to “not a big deal.” You disagree. Great. Have a discussion about it like big boys (or big girls). Don’t be a dick about it.
Excuse me. I need to correct myself. “in a post” should read “in the comments for a post.” My apologies. That makes it seem like I’m addressing this solely to Adam…But, what the heck. Stop drudging arguments, you little fishstick person you! *glare-face at Adam*
Eh, and on that note, I’m going to take back “douchebaggery.” I think that’s unfair in this instance. Rudeness still stands, but it’s probably wrong of me to characterize this as douchebaggery. Withdrawn.
I’ll stop myself now. *hugs Aidan with spiky armor*
*flinches away from SMD*
Great post; the issue of violence in fantasy is one I have been thinking about as well. I do think we’ve (writers and readers) have conflated conflict with violence, and as Paul said above, it works as a shorthand. But it would be great to explore that a bit more. (I think Mark Charan Newton is doing this in his new series, which at least has elements of the mystery genre). Regardless of what Martin and company have done, I think the genre will only be strengthened with an increase of narratives by non-violent characters. (Non-fighters are also a much more realistic sample of humanity than nobles/warriors.)
Write more non-violent fantasy. If it’s written well, and fans of the genre are open to it, they will buy it. And if they buy it, more authors will write it–and then there will no longer be the disparity that seemed to initially bother you.
If you build it (and it’s worthy), they will come. I’m a little tired of all the lamenting about what fantasy [i]doesn’t[/i] currently do. You can’t [i]essay[/i] or [i]blog[/i] genre fiction that meets your personal standards/wishes into existence. You can only [i]write[/i] it into existence and hope there’s enough like-minded readers to support it (and hopefully more like it).
I like your fiction. It never occurred to me that there was less violence in your stories. To be perfectly honest: as a reader… I don’t really [i]care[/i] why I like something.
Damn! Where’s that ‘Edit Comment’ button Aidan? ;)
@Doug — While I mostly agree, I wonder about this comment,
and whether it’s not also a beneficial step for essays like this one to exist as a way to open dialogue among readers and writers?
It could be beneficial, I suppose–I certainly don’t mean to dismiss it out of hand. It’s just that I’m not really all that interested in non-fiction about fantasy fiction (except maybe for release dates, content summaries/reviews and the like, if that counts). I’ve always found it a bit silly, to tell the truth. And I’m not entirely certain that there NEEDS to be open dialogue between readers and writers. I’ve always thought the fiction WAS the dialogue.
What’s that one rule of story writing that always gets touted so much?… “Show, don’t tell?”
Well that’s exactly how I feel about all this. Don’t TELL me what you wish was happening in the fantasy genre … SHOW me what you think the fantasy genre ought to be more like. Maybe I’ll agree, and maybe I won’t.
Not Show Don’t Tell! Please! It’s like the worst touted writing “rule” ever. Sometimes, you really just need to tell.
Obviously, I’m also really happy for conversations like this one – non-fiction about fantasy fiction to happen. It’s thought-provoking, and challenging, and I appreciate the effort.
Great article. Thought-provoking for sure. I recommend Peter Beagle’s short stories for some serious fantasy without reliance on violence to forward the plot.
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