A Chill Runs Through Her Veins

In my post "I Aim To Misbehave," I dealt with how to go about writing violence, because violence often crops up in stories. We have to have conflict of some sort, or everything is too unrealistic and too boring. I dealt largely with the idea of a fight and how characters might react to or handle a fight. My post was, of course, not at all exhaustive, but I hope it engendered pensive attitudes regarding the problem. But there is another aspect to fights and violence in literature which, when touched on, makes the scene even more realistic.

In writing Adamantine, which has a young woman as its main character, I was taught something about physical conflict. Not only does it have to be sensible, it has to be felt. Could she watch someone have his guts dumped out and not feel horrified by the carnage? Could she bring herself to inflict damage on someone else, even for self-preservation, or would the horror of pain in the human body be too much for her? She is a young, sheltered Victorian lady. Her butchered meat, the closest she ever gets to carnage, is brought up to her kitchen door and handed to the cook to prepare. Violent death leaves her in a state of shock and hysteria. Even for the sake of a smooth narrative, I can't simply ignore the fact that violence, and violence that leads to death, is horrifying. It's a psychopath, a twisted villain, and a seasoned, loyal warrior who can kill and not feel that horror - or even feel a sense of delight in killing. My young woman is none of those.

Circumstance and your own temperament will determine how you go about addressing this subject, but I think it ought to be addressed. Just as you can't have a character who has never learned martial arts proceed to employ distinctly oriental methods of combat, so you can't have someone who has never seen blood a day in his or her life witness a great and violent deal of it without emotional repercussions. I do not advise angst as angst has come to be known today, particularly among the teenage population. It need not be crippling, it need not be lasting: but it is very unrealistic for an otherwise innocent character to inflict or to see pain or death inflicted on another without feeling the backlash of it.

The body broke her fall. Sissel was there somewhere, crouched with her, trying to drag her away. She was dimly aware of flame and heat. The only two things she as sharply conscious of was the looming presence of the dragoon soldier and the cold metal of the dead man’s pistol under her hand. Don’t think, she told herself. Just do it.

The man grabbed her shoulder and jerked her round. With a desperate sob she raised the pistol, breaking the man’s nose on impact. She shut her eyes, and pulled the trigger.

There was a bang and a wet explosion on her own face. Beyond her closed eyelids she saw the flash of fire from the hammer. Almost at once she dropped the weapon, afraid of it, dragging her eyes open against the running spray of blood to see the body crumpled almost in her lap, its face blown out of recognition.

I say it need not be crippling, but sometimes it is. As an idle scribble I was writing two characters, a father and his daughter. They both proved to be difficult characters to write, but enjoyable. However, when the daughter was kidnapped according to the little plot I had in mind, I could no longer write the father. There was nothing sensible to write. The rage, the terror, the passion of a father whose little girl has been lost - how could I write that? I am not yet sure, but what else could I do? It would be ludicrous for the father to take the kidnapping of his child with a level head. I had to reduce the story to this passionate rage or everything would be shallow and cheap.

...feathers were everywhere, little soft ivory-coloured peels all over the bed and floor. The sight was a jolt to Rede's stomach. He dropped to one knee and felt under the bed: there was nothing there but dust and more feathers. But when he got back up the wall at the head of the bed fell under his gaze and the panic gripped him again, crawling up from his belly.

The plaster was shattered in raking grooves and the timber support beams were notched to the white. Blood, like a macabre celestial painting, splattered and streaked the wall. It was then that he realized the blood was everywhere, beginning to smell with the rising warmth: it stained his knee where he had knelt on the floor and drenched the rugs and limp piles of feathers. In mingled horror he drew back, forcing Red Branch's name through his locked jaw.

Food for thought! Keep in mind not only the physical sensibleness of a fight, but the emotional aspects as well. (Megan, you are exempt from these admonitions because you are so painfully a master at it already.) Sometimes to be realistic and poignant, we have to scribble outside our comfort zones, and perhaps this is one area where that is true. Keep in mind a girl's shock at seeing a cat kill a bird, and a conniving queen's delight in administering poison. Keep in mind a boy's terror of his first full-pitched battle and the callous enjoyment of a serial killer. The reader shares the horror with the one, and feels horror at the other. Again, circumstances and your own temperament will determine how you attack these issues, but attack them you must. And have fun!

7 ripostes:

  1. Very good points, Jenny! The reactions are definitely good things to keep in mind, I'll have to remember this. :)

  2. It's so hard to write that, these days. It's true, it's most certainly true. But by and large we have become so desensitized to fictional violence that it's almost foreign to us.
    Or perhaps it's just me.

    Gak. You keep inspiring me to take up Theed again, and I really haven't the time to do more than Woodhouse it.

    ...Why do you have to be so darn GOOD at this???

  3. I think the line can be fine at times. In some cases, the horror ought to be there, and isn't; in other cases, too much of it is there and it becomes the main thrust of the story. I hope neither is the case in my stories. I hope the reactions are realistic and understandable, and fitting to the circumstances. I can't speak for Today's Fiction because I am not well acquainted with it.

    And...my darn goodness is flattered? Far be it from me to inspire you. :P

  4. Oh, this is so true.

    In my WIP, the hero/protagonist is a knight, and as such, he is required to fight for the king. In the previous draft, I had written little about his reactions to the horror of a battle--something he had hardly experienced up until this point. In this draft, I've forced myself to delve a bit deeper into his shock and revulsion. Damian is not a bloodthirsty young man, nor would he find pleasure in another human's pain. But it is his duty.

    A character's reactions to their desperate, painful, or terrifying circumstances can strengthen or shatter the suspension of disbelief!


  5. Very thoughtful post. It does put me in mind of the current generation's immersion in violence - on TV, in movies, through video games. People are becoming desensitized to the trauma of violence without having to undergo a true baptism in violent fire. I think the overtly visual nature of modern entertainment, especially as it touches graphic portrayals of violence, will make the author's task much more difficult, if not almost impossible. How is he or she to do honor to the once-sensitive nature of humanity with respect to violence when humanity has been thoroughly desensitized?

  6. I don't know, Daddy. I know I'm of a naturally sensitive (and occasionally introspective) disposition: when we went down to shoot and I began to learn about guns and what they could do, jokes about getting shot weren't funny to me anymore. The Monty Python joke "They'll never expect the Inquisition!" isn't funny anymore, because I know a little bit about what Christians suffered at the hands of the Inquisition. Perhaps bringing the gravity of violence home to the readership is partly up to the readership. But it has to be properly handled by the writers first.

    Hm, even the Son of Man, who is the chief player of the Central Story, blanched at the imminence of shame and agony and death. Writing from the Way, it seems to me that the closer one gets to a return to innocence, the more appalling violence becomes.

    But perhaps I grow tangential.

  7. I've been contemplating a blog post on violence. Not in writing, but in how we perceive it and handle exposure to it. It was something I thought of after the London Riots (which come after a wave of increasingly violent protests in my own country and Africa at large). I was wondering what is behind this sudden upsurgence in violence. Protests at university and during workers' strikes are normal here, but the violent and destructive nature of them has escalated in the last year. I haven't found the opportunity and courage to write it, but perhaps I should.