Saturday, January 14, 2017

Violence in Fantasy

The other day I remembered I have Twitter. (First tweet in about 8 months. Oops.)

I read mostly fantasy, but also a handful of contemporary or historical fiction, even the occasional sci-fi. I've noticed that if you compare books of different genres but with the same target age, the books with a farther away setting (whether time or place) tend to have a lot more violence.

Not all of them. I've read plenty of middle grades or YA fantasy where no one kills/fights/beats up anyone. But I've also read plenty where they do. Whereas I've read very few contemporary novels where someone gets killed or has a weapon, or even dies from an accident or illness.

From a worldbuilding aspect, it's easier to get away with killing off characters when a society doesn't have a strong legal presence. But I think it's more than that.

In a battle scene in a popular trilogy I read last year, the heroine watches as the villain's monsters hold a twenty-something guy she knows by the limbs and head and pull them all off at once.

And the reader thinks, Oh, this sure is tense. I hope the heroine succeeds in the mission.

Imagine if that was a guy on Earth, maybe in Ancient Egypt or Imperial Japan or Colonial America. Or in your 2010s city. Isn't it much more gruesome now?

That guy was somebody's friend. He'd been in love with someone, before she was killed. He probably had a mother. Now his body is in six pieces.

So why, when it happens in a distant setting, do we often skip on to the next thing and not think about that victim again? Or about their family, who may never know what happened to their loved one or where the body is? Is it because there's no CSI running lab analyses to find the killer? Because it's too easy to assume someone "other" from us is simply used to a hard life? Because people in a world with swords just go around killing each other?

Fiction is a safe place to explore emotions. It's also a safe place to explore issues--race, class, sex, religion, societal expectations, basically any kind of conflict. Readers enter the world without the prejudices of that society, and we can see more objectively that racism really is founded on false beliefs of those "other" people. Ideas of class differ, but why do we really think we're better than so-and-so? Fiction is a place we can experience being someone else and come away, hopefully, with a better understanding that people are people.

My world has flaws. There's slavery. There's classism. There are high taxes and a large gap between rich and poor. The real world has flaws, and any imagined world has flaws or there's no story.

But I try to limit the violence. In the future I'll try for a plot that doesn't require killings. It's common enough in the real world, and it's common in fantasy, and I don't want to throw it in there and then skip on to the next thing like it's nothing. I've only written one novel so far. People get killed. But I keep it to only what's necessary for the plot, and the hero feels it each time, even when it's an enemy. A life ending is a significant occurrence.

Face it, if you saw someone get killed or maimed or did the act yourself, would you just go on with your day? Wouldn't you be a bit shaken?

As the author, I have to know the important characters' backstories, goals, and motivations. Even the villains'. Turns out they're people too. They're pretty bad, but if they're well-written (realistic) they're not 100% bad. They have friends and families they love. They also happen to have goals that clash with the hero's. While an author can't spend too much time on subplots and side characters, there's some character-writing advice I read once that really stuck with me. I think of it often, not only when writing, but also in my interactions with other people:

Every character is the hero in his own story.

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