5 Things Fiction Writers Should Remember About Violence
|Content warning for references to fictional depictions of extreme violence.|
One of the many things the late Iain Banks could do that few other authors can or choose to do, is to write about depravity like it's something that human beings do to other human beings. In his novels, I read about rape, torture and murder - including child rape and murder - but I always felt safe enough to carry on reading. Okay, so squeamish people need to avoid some of those books entirely, but Banks took me places I wouldn't have followed most other writers.
I was thinking about this when we watched the first episode of The Fall (which as of writing is still on iPlayer, thus the odd timing), a television detective drama that's come into some criticism for the depiction of violence against women. We gave up after the first episode because neither of us could trust the writer; it was going to get nasty and it wasn't going to be worth it. Allan Cubitt's defense in the Guardian confirmed to me that we'd done the right thing.
Human beings do not have an insatiable appetite for viscera and violence and it is not the case that folks who have the capacity to be nauseated, offended or triggered by fiction are somehow unsophisticated (my gut feeling is that our tolerance for violence and gore peaks at around the age of fifteen). Almost everybody has their limits, but good writing stretches those limits. We're not going to win them all and sometimes graphic, horrifying events are necessary to tell a story. But it's a reasonable desire that we use these elements to best effect.
There's also a moral and social justice element here. Handle these subjects badly, and we're in danger or perpetuating stereotypes, glamorizing certain types of violence and desensitising people to terrible things. Fiction is not a platform on which to preach, to talk statistics or analyse sociological trends. But can be a tool for telling truths and lies about the human condition.
So, then things writers need to remember when writing about violence:
1. If it's not telling the story, it shouldn't be there at all.
In that Guardian article, Allan Cubbit, writer of The Fall, claims
"...there were several decisions I made early on to help deal with my own concerns about having women as victims. The first season of Spiral starts with a mutilated, naked female corpse in a skip. The first season of The Killing opens with a girl running for her life through a carefully lit wood. I never felt – even in 20 hours – that I got to know that victim."I strongly disagree with his assessment of The Killing especially, but there's also a big point being missed. At the start of Spiral, the victim is dead and the team set about discovering her story. At the start of The Killing, the victim is running for her life, free and alive, hoping to survive. In the first episode of The Fall we saw brief snippets of the victims life before a lengthy scene of the killer generally enjoying himself while the victim lies, tied-up, gagged and without any hope or power, doing nothing. You can't humanise a character by, well, dehumanising them.
This isn't about social justice, but story-telling and trauma. While the victim is helpless but not-yet-murdered, there is no story going on. We already know that this guy takes pleasure in the helplessness and suffering of women. So what's the point but to shock, upset or possibly titillate the audience? Because if taken seriously, it is upsetting, far more upsetting than a mutilated corpse or someone who, however slim their chances, is still fighting for her life. (I'm not dismissing the possibility that this scene is, in fact, being played for titillation, that the idea is for the audience not to take it too seriously and therefore get a thrill from a scantily-glad attractive woman tied to a bed. But this isn't 1968 and Vincent Price didn't appear dressed as Dracula - an earnest crime drama is not the context in which to play those games.)
Even showing a mutilated dead body is better than showing someone helpless and suffering for no reason. There are plenty of stories, especially detective fiction, which successfully humanise a character who is already dead (something The Killing achieved in part by showing the victim's film-making skills).
Meanwhile, one of the most graphic rape and murder scenes I can recall, in Stephen King's Bag of Bones, justifies its considerable word-count because it is a plot-defining fight; Sara Tidwell continues to fight until she is dead and, of course, battles on for vengeance in the afterlife. There is ongoing interaction between Sara and her attackers, even when she is being raped and thus, this is part of the story.
2. Good and bad things, funny and sad things, happen to everyone, all the time.
Only in the deepest depression - when a person more or less stops feeling - does this stop being the case. Fiction's business often lies in negative dramatic events; either in the descent into tragedy or the diversity heroes must overcome. But people who experience nothing but suffering are not real. They are total victims. They are difficult to invest in because when they are killed horribly, they've not exactly lost much. Meanwhile, unrelenting misery is jolly hard work to read.
I recently read Belinda Bauer's Blacklands which has, at its heart, a great story; a young boy trying to extract the location of his dead uncle from the paedophile convicted for his murder. However, this kid's life sucks so much that when he was thrown into peril, I found myself thinking, "Well, at least his suffering would be over and his god-awful family might finally notice he once existed."
Contrast this with Donna Tart's brilliant The Little Friend, also about a child trying to solve a child murder that destroyed her family. Harriet is incredibly vulnerable and surrounded by inadequate friends and family members, but it's a far more mixed bag - it's far more realistic. Even though she has no rock solid adult allies, there are adults who are kind to her and she has friends who care about her even if they're not always capable of doing the right thing. Whereas for Stephen in Blacklands, everyone he meets either exploits or rejects him. (I had a similar problem with Lionel Shriver's We need to talk about Kevin - no way did that kid never do anything cute!).
Even Frank in Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory has a friend and funny experiences (often very darkly funny), and he's got problems.
3. Character's voices are often more effective than authors.
In Anthony Burgess' The Clockwork Orange, Nabokov's Lolita and Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory, many horrible things - animal cruelty, child abuse, rape and murder - are narrated by the perpetrator. These writers knew how you can get into the mind of a monster without exploitation. All these narrators are articulate and passionate yet completely unreliable. In The Clockwork Orange, Alex speaks a poetic slang which obscures the horror of his crimes. In Lolita Humbert Humbert is unable to read other people's blatantly obvious feelings, while The Wasp Factory's Frank doesn't even understand who he is.
In other books, for example E. Annie Proulx's brilliant The Shipping News, extremely grim events are described by characters in speech, often by the characters who had these terrible experiences. Naturalistic speech is often far more effective than an authorial voice because if your friend tells you a story about something awful that happened to them (or even something awful they did);
Going on from this...
3. The way characters respond to nasty things makes the world of difference.
In real life, events are made more traumatic when we face them alone or when people around us react very differently. Some of the most unpleasant experiences I've had through fiction have been when horrific events are not treated as such by the other characters - when we see someone suffer a horrible death in graphic detail and nobody seems very upset or, perhaps most commonly, when someone is raped and nobody calls it rape (a famous filmic example would be High Plains Drifter where the rapist gets to be the hero of the day).
Iain Banks and Stephen King - two very different writers, but both with a tremendous capacity for dark writing - manage to write about horrific and weird events whilst having their characters respond with every ounce of emotion that you'd expect. This places violence in its proper context, which is both about telling the truth as well as reassuring the reader that they are on a journey and haven't been thrown into hell for the sake of it.
In modern detective stories, there's often such an attempt to portray a hard-as-nails and cold-as-ice detective who has seen every horror the world could throw at them, that they respond to the most outrageous crimes with cold detachment. This can be a big problem. For one thing, there's a reason why senior detectives often come on the telly to say this was the worst case they'd ever had to deal with, without a serial killer, and sometimes without even a murdered child in sight. There are realistic limits to the degree of professional detachment anyone is capable of.
But if the reader or viewer is to understand events through the eyes of a particular character - whether or not this character is wholly sympathetic - there must be some emotion there. If not, then we're back to reading police reports, gaining images for our nightmares without any hope of catharsis.
4. You don't make up for mishandling violence against women by having "strong female characters".
Skyfall surpassed all our expectations, but the heavy use of Judy Dench and a well-rounded new (black British!) Moneypenny doesn't magically make up for one woman being treated as a pretty object that James Bond steals from his enemy, only for the enemy to destroy it. Allan Cubitt's defense of The Fall rested heavily on having a "strong" female detective (played by the glorious Gillian Anderson) who demonstrated her strength of character in the first episode by propositioning a lower ranking officer she'd just met in front of their colleagues (which in real life, would be seen as aggressive, embarrassing and intimidating).
In fact, too often writers contrast weak passive victims with a physically and mentally tough female protagonists (or at least, more important characters). The tough woman may be thrown into danger, but she will stay safe because she's smart and brave (and often, sexy enough to attract a rescuer). Victims, on the other hand, float into harm's way like leaves on the breeze. They've pretty much got it coming to them and so their fate matters less.
Given that we live in a culture which repeatedly dismisses violence against women on the grounds that only certain types of women are in any danger (whether because of their sexual behaviour, race or immigration status or because of ideas about their character (she has a "type", she has low self-esteem etc.), these fictional dichotomies are almost as bad as scenarios where women are always victims.
That having been said,
5. If you're going to write about sexual violence, positive representations of consensual sex is going to help.
There is a long shameful tradition in fiction of a muddying of normal romantic and sexual behaviour and sexual violence (something I've written about at length). Brilliant writers can play with these boundaries - Angela Carter's rich fairytales often do and Bram Stoker writes passages of erotica, thinly disguised as horror for his Victorian audience. However, too often rape and other violations are seen as indicative of overwhelming romantic love or sexual desire, rather than the power trip these things are all about. Beautiful women are seen as vulnerable to men in general, on account of their irresistible charms.
Banks' Complicity is particularly good on this because it portrays kink - even pretend rape - where everyone enjoys themselves alongside rape and torture. Both are written about graphically and skillfully and the difference is absolutely crystal clear. Writers who write realistic consensual sex (especially good sex), where people talk to each other, where characters respond to verbal and physical prompts, are extremely unlikely to blunder when it comes to sexual violence.
In horror especially, but also elsewhere (such as in the Bond movies - see above), consensual sex is so often an act of hubris, especially on the part of a young woman, who will later suffer some dreadful physical indignity and probably death. Sex becomes part of a person's downward trajectory, joined together with really bad things. Not only is this a troubling message, but the connection means that both sex and death will be given the same titillating treatment; we were enjoying those breasts jiggling about a little while ago, and here is the naked woman once again, covered in blood. She was only a body to begin with.
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