Violence in novels

Photo: Alan McCluskey

When I wrote to a friend that I was finishing a scene in my latest novel, Forget Me Not, that was particularly violent, she replied: So why do you want to write violence? Why not write something that can touch others and make positive things?

I think she misunderstood what I said or I didn’t explain myself well enough. Many stories have an element of violence. Take the well-known children’s story, Little Red Riding Hood, for example. Several people get eaten alive. Put like that, it sounds atrocious, but the story is told in a way that outcomes are evoked but not described in all their gory detail. As such they are acceptable.

Adversity is almost invariably the motor of a good story. OK, violence and adversity are not synonymous. The dictionary says of violence that it is the use of physical (and/or psychological) force aimed at hurting. Violence is often used as a deliberate lever to power and control, but can also be gratuitous and senseless. Adversity, in comparison, is described as misfortune, being in a difficult or unpleasant situation. Less assertive than violence, less damaging too, it does not necessarily represent deliberate malevolence and may even be self-inflicted.

The portrayal of violence could engender further violence. Once those images are in your head, it’s not easy to get rid of them. And the chemicals they release in your body can last a long time and are potentially damaging. From another perspective, envisaging violence is like crossing a threshold that cannot be uncrossed. Why? Amongst other things, because doing so makes it more acceptable or at least more ‘normal’, if only by familiarity. In a way, the acceptable threshold of violence is continually being ratcheted up in an ongoing inflation fed by commercial competition in the world of media and publishing.

So, in introducing violence, the author needs to be particularly cautious about what is given to be seen or imagined. If you are not careful, there’s a moment when restraint gives way to indulgence, which ultimately gives way to revelling in the high that violence brings and the related feeling of power. When that indistinct line is crossed, literature becomes gore, in a similar way that sex becomes pornography and the people involved become objects to display and use rather than humans or politics when it becomes a slanging match and open abuse replaces meaningful debate.

There are books that feed on violence without any perspective of ‘redemption’. The characters learn nothing from the extreme adversity they are subjected to. The ‘real’ character of the book is then the violence itself which grows and develops as the author struggles to outdo himself and other writers. The Maze Runner (by James Dashner, first published in 2009) is one such book and the follow-up, The Scorch Trials even more so. I was so sickened by the latter I stopped reading it. The ultra slim promise of a possible resolution worthy of human beings was not enough to pull me through the ever growing horrors. The Scorch Trials strike me as a typical example of an author’s efforts to outdo the competition, in this case, such books as the Hunger Games.

Beyond the traps of portraying violence, the challenge is not the violence, but how the characters react to it. To write stories which skirt around violence or severe adversity would not only be flat and uninspiring, but also not give the characters a chance to grow and develop. It is in that growth that the readers are touched and inspired by what they read.

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