Violence in fiction

When I started writing my historical novel, I wanted to be a little different from the style I saw in the historical novels I had read. That style, from my personal perception, was slow moving, full of long and detailed descriptions, and much more drama than action. I wanted to create an adventurous and exciting story that would also educate readers on historical events few people know about.

I am a martial arts enthusiast (I’d never call myself an expert) and part of my training requirements in the past have been to document and describe, in my own words, the concepts and techniques I was being trained in. Calling on this experience, I wanted to describe fight scenes and action sequences in my story in more detail than most other books I had read. I wanted the reader to be able to visualize what the hero and his opponents were doing physically.

When I gave some of my first writing samples to a couple of my friends, they encouraged me to be more graphic. I wasn’t showing enough blood spray and spilling entrails. But while we see these things in movies, I noticed that most of the novels I had read didn’t go into such graphic detail. They let you know the guy got his throat slit, but they don’t describe every gory detail. The books I saw that did describe violence in bloody detail were certainly not New York Times Bestsellers. I find this interesting, and the lesson I take is that books appealing to wider audiences can have violent action, but graphic description is limited to a certain extent.

Personally, I don’t study martial arts because I like violence. I do it because I am fascinated with how the mind and body can be trained and conditioned, and the physical ability and power that comes from it. I do it because it’s great exercise. I do it because I like the art of physical expression through techniques and forms. I am more drawn to traditional Asian martial arts than MMA, cage fighting, or street fighting styles. So my writing emphasizes the art and technique rather than the damage to the body that results.

When one of my friends suggested one of my fight scenes was too tame, especially since the hero left his enemies alive, I experimented by re-writing the scene with much bloodier, bone-snapping description. I also killed all the “bad guys”. Comparing the two, I decided I preferred and admired a hero who could take out all his foes without killing them, which requires much more skill. I decided I preferred the art and efficiency of the techniques to the brutal, cruel, and savage style of the re-write. I am capable of writing that way, but that’s not the kind of story I want to write. Anybody can bend an elbow backwards or stab a knife in someone’s eye socket, but to protect yourself AND your attacker while incapacitating them requires a much higher level of skill, which should be respected. Especially my jujitsu and karate training taught me that making a technique work is much easier than making it work “just enough”. And making it work “just enough” in a real combat situation… that requires an unbelievable level of control and skill!

Another point I want to make is this: If I am reading a really good story, where the characters are interesting and the plot keeps me engaged, I don’t need graphic violence to hold my attention. In fact, I have left darker and more gruesome books unfinished, simply because I felt the main character and his/her ambition or goals were flat and uninteresting. Violence is part of the good stopping the bad, but it doesn’t have to be gruesome or gratuitous to tell a good story.

My book has a lot of violent action scenes (hey, it’s full of old-school samurai and ninja, what else could we expect?) but I have tried to find that balance between portraying a hero fighting his enemies and protecting the innocent, and just going for shock value. There were some things that actually happened, according to historical record, in the time and place of my story that I chose not to describe in detail. For example: people were bound tightly and hung upside down in a pit, over burning human excrement, with only one arm free to signal that they would agree to the government’s terms. The pressure of the blood in the skull created by gravity was unbearable. Guards would actually slit open the forehead to let out some blood and relieve some of the pressure, just to keep the captive conscious and in excruciating pain. Some people had enough courage, strength, and above all, conviction to endure over two weeks of this.

Another thing I try to do is describe things that happen quickly – well, quickly. You’ve been in situations where things happened so fast you didn’t have time to think. It is impossible to describe lighting fast action on paper at the same speed it happens. On the other hand, going on for a page and a half about how a guy draws his sword or what he is thinking in the middle of fast action seems ridiculous to me. The reader simply won’t get that sense of breathless speed with which these things happen. Shorter sentences and carefully chosen words can do a better job.

I also thing it’s important to spend time establishing WHY the hero must fight, what his cause is, and what he hopes to accomplish. If you have violence without cause or reason… well there’s just no point and the story looses its value and appeal.

Violence can make a story more exciting, but there must be a balance. You need conversations, description of settings and people, and non-violent action in between. Even exciting action gets old if it goes on for too long.