Levels of VIOLENCE in science-fiction

bloody fists

Violence is one of humanity’s evils, and usually to be shunned and avoided in real life. But in fiction, it can serve a purpose that can’t be better fulfilled with diplomacy or negotiation. And it’s needless to deny that it deserves to be there, since it’s a fundamental part of humanity, whether we like it or not.

Violence is a very powerful tool, and it must be wielded with great care. It’s a potent spice, millions of scoville, and as writers we have to counterbalance it deftly with other elements, such as romance, humor, delicacy and peace. Unless, you know, you write gory stuff that idolizes it. Move on, please.

In fiction, we can venture into the dark corners of the human mind, into the brutal, savage side of human rage and fear. If we want to get it right and make an impact that serves the story well, we have to be able and willing to recognize the dark and violent side within ourselves, within all of us, and find the right buttons to press for our characters and readers. And we have to be able to discern between the fake violence we’re fed by the movie industry, and the real violence we [can] experience out there.

Here goes.

The FIRST LESSON is that extraordinary circumstances allow the readers to suspend their aversion and squeamishness toward violence, if it serves the plot. We can’t just have characters commit murders without reason; we can’t start wars without purpose; and we can’t drop a bunch of bloody guts and splattered brains on the reader hoping to shock them. The story circumstances need to justify the violence we force the reader to go through. If they don’t, if we indulge in gratuitous bloodshed, we’ll weaken the story.

The SECOND LESSON is that our idea that all people are equal and have some sort of value is a relatively modern idea. It doesn’t apply to any previous century, and probably won’t apply 100% to the distant future. Humans have a distinct tendency to be hierarchical and thus discriminant. If some can be above others (by role, merit, birth right, color, sex, etc.) that means that others can be beneath them. And if others are beneath them, they are less valuable, less deserving, less human. Dehumanization is an integral ingredient in violence. It’s a disinhibitor. In a story, the group that receives violence from another, is often considered to be less, or at such fault that it must be extinguished.

And finally, the THIRD LESSON is that there are different levels of violence, and they all have very distinct impacts on the reader. This is what I want to take a look at, unfortunately only briefly now. But I will get back to this topic in the future.

Here be the violence levels, top down:

Grand scale

Invasion, mass murder, war, genocide, etc.

On the grandest of scales, violence is directed against a large number of people who act, or are considered, as one. This act can be performed by another group, or by a single individual, it doesn’t matter. It’s the “size” of the victim that determines the scale.

Grand scale violence is the most depersonalized of all. You can’t really regard your victim as a group of humans with rights and feelings such as yours, because you don’t know them; you regard them as a mob, a faceless mass of creatures, or just a number. One hundred. Twelve thousand. Six million. Whatever. Drop the bomb.

In fiction, especially in science-fiction, we often encounter wars between rivaling human factions or between humans and aliens. Wars are an abstract, large scale form of violence that becomes even more obscure if it’s carried out in space, where combatants never meet face-to-face. In the case of alien opponents, the readiness and ease of dehumanization is so great, killing doesn’t fell much like killing at all. It’s hard to give the reader a good approximation of the actual horrors of grand scale violence, if the victim is abstract. But it’s what we must do nonetheless, if such a war is to be experienced as a real war, and not just a cheap plot gimmick.

We can achieve this by picking a small scale example that the reader can imagine on a more personal level. Have two enemy ships crash on the same planet, and force the opponents to engage directly. Present a small faction of the victim (a group, a family, a single character) and showcase the violence they experience—and their death—at close range.

If we choose to never venture into the “enemy camp”, and prefer to stick to one side of the battle, we can have a character (or a group) recognize the horror of what they’re doing, but be unable to prevent it. They could get caught behind enemy lines, where they witness the “humanity” or desolation of the victim. Or maybe they could suffer a loss, and upon painfully trying to deal with it, realize the scale of suffering they are in turn causing their enemy.

Medium scale

Guerilla wars, gang fights, terrorist attacks, riots, etc.

On a lesser scale, but still above an immediate personal level, is medium scale violence such as fights and attacks performed by a small number of people against another small number. This is also often encountered in science-fiction, especially as guerilla wars against occupying or ruling forces (either human or alien), and direct confrontations between two small rivaling factions.

The best way to bring this sort of violence closer to the reader is to name and follow as many characters from those group(s) as the story allows. If the reader knows enough people from both sides, the conflict will be much more intensely felt. There is less need to extrapolate from those examples to a greater size, as there is in the case of war, for example, and so following a few characters as they go through this sort of medium scale violence is enough to give an ample image of its true impact.

Just be careful to not present it in a too positive light. There are no absolute good vs. evil fights in reality, and they are very hackneyed and silly in fiction.

Small scale

Attack, torture, rape, murder, etc.

Although it’s comparatively small scale, this level of violence is the most acutely felt because it is personal. It’s not directed at a faceless opponent or an abstract number of opponents. This is as personal as it gets — violence performed by one individual against another individual, deliberately, often premeditated, and through close or direct contact.

Here, you don’t have to work hard to make the reader “feel it”. What you have to be careful about, though, is to not go overboard with the gruesome, or downplay the severity of the act. If you’re not careful how you handle a personal attack (with or without weapons), rape, or torture, you might cross the line between ‘It’s safe to watch’ and ‘I don’t care what happens’.

On the other hand, giving too many details and trying to be overly realistic can also be off-putting. Most people (thankfully) have no freaking idea what real violence is like. They only have a cosmeticized notion of it, a Hollywood image of heroic fist-fights, daring Karate moves, quick anonymous rapes, and victims that are traumatized but eventually grow from the experience. This could not be further from the truth.

Fist fights, for example, aren’t heroic or orchestrated blow-by-blows, they’re frantic, fast and at much closer range than you see in movies. They’re chaotic, suffused with panic, limited by adrenaline-induced tunnel vision, drenched in blood, saliva and snot, with sore knuckles meeting raw flesh and snapping bone. They’re blunt, and nauseating, and gruesomely painful. They’re tears and bitten tongues, broken fingers, ruptured spleens, vomit, and piss. They’re not awesome man-on-man fights where the camera gets to sway from one to the other, and capture clever lines between clean blows.

(If you’re as interested as me in presenting close range violence realistically in fiction, I highly recommend you read Violence: A Writer’s Guide by Rory Miller.)

I won’t even go into detail about the differences between fictional rapes and actual rapes, or between fictional torture and the actual act of slow, systematic, psychological and physical mutilation that is real torture.

Murder is another category. You can kill someone without ever coming close to him, by using a gun, for example. So you have to also consider the “tool” if you want to get the reader close to this.

Sub-violence

Manipulation, coercion, blackmail, bullying, harassing, mobbing, etc.

I didn’t know how else to call this level, but I think sub-violence describes it best. The acts I listed above are still very much violence, even though there is no blunt force or physical harm involved. They’re acts of violence directed at a person’s sense of self, at their self-esteem or their social position, or at their sense of security. All of these are very important aspects of life, if you remember Maslow’s pyramid, and very much targets of directed violence.

Because there is no physical component to these (except, maybe, bullying), and because most of these acts are performed over a prolonged period of time and with premeditation, it’s once again easy to slip into abstract territory or to be so vague as to not have the reader empathize with the victim enough to generate genuine credibility. On the other hand, you can also over-dramatize these acts, slipping into the unintentionally comical, especially if you try to write about blackmail or mobbing, and remain at the superficial level of heinous phone calls and workplace pranks.

So.

To wrap things up — violence isn’t necessarily man-on-man or open war. It has many facets, and falls into different categories. In order to write about these as effectively as possible, and engage the readers instead of turning them off, we have to be mindful of the difference between real violence and movie violence, and always build a connection between the level of violence we write about and the personal level the reader will feel it on.

Have you ever written a violent scene? Have you written about war, riots, fist-fights, or murders?

How deep did you go into the reality of violence, and bring it close to the reader?

In my novel The Deeplink, I have a single fight scene, short and straightforward, and a few chapters that attempt to capture the horrors of a guerilla war. In the case of the war, I singled out several people who became victims of it—bystanders, attackers, and the actual targets—to show what was going on. I’ve also done a lot of research to find specific impressions from people who witnessed or suffered similar things, to draw on as much reality as possible. I hope I succeeded; beta readers will soon tell. 😉

* * *

          This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.          

In 2012, my V post was — Voice Is When It’s All Yours

7 Replies to “Levels of VIOLENCE in science-fiction”

  1. Nice post!

    I have both large-scale and very personal fights in my story. While I agree that the portrayal of violence and its consequences realistically requires substantial research, there is another component that is important to remember–especially if a writer deals with invented lifeforms and cultures–those will have other rules/reactions (especially depending on biology) for the game. The job here would be to show how that specific background affects the reaction and all, and fights themselves, of course. An alien enemy will not invade with our own strategy/tactic for sure. 🙂

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    1. Yes! Exactly. Aliens involved in fights need to have their own different reactions and sensations, to create credibility.

      I haven’t written any actual fights between human and aliens (an alien killing a human upon first touch can’t be really considered a fight), but I look forward to the challenge in my next book.

      Like

  2. I tend to write a great deal of violence in my work. Not all of it, but as overall.

    When I add I consider it carefully and make sure it is consistent with the setting. In my shelved SciFi epic violence is common, as is betrayal, dangerous politics, and sanctioned crime.

    In my fantasy setting there is more hope and happy things.

    Sometimes, I go over the top, but that’s why I have my critique group to yell at me for.

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  3. I really, really agree with that comment on violence needing to have a point to it, the person inflicting it has to have a reason. I critiqued a manuscript in progress for someone, and they had an incredibly gory, violent scene in there which to me had absolutely no justification. It came out of nowhere and the only impact it had was to make me find it distasteful.

    If however the characters are well built up and well rounded, extreme violence – when justified – can work. George R R Martin might be the best example of this, his books include a serious amount of violent, and possibly ever kind of violence you mention, but it works because we connect with all the characters on such a deep level, we understand why they do what they do, whether you approve of it or not.

    I have to say though, I struggle with reading fight scenes. Short fight scenes are fine, but long fight scenes I find really hard to picture and I tend to skim through to get to the end and find out what happens…..
    Great post though, and the suggestions on how to make large scale conflicts “smaller” are really useful.

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    1. Yup, long fight scenes are almost always the author indulging in cinematic violence. In reality, person-on-person fights don’t last very long outside of the box ring or martial arts competition. Fights are messy and hurtful and all parties involved usually try to get it over with as quickly as possible, some to prove their point, others to end the pain. In fiction, fight scenes have the exact same purpose as real violence — to solve a conflict, prove a point, or gratify the perpetrator in some way. It must be short and to the point, powerful and limited.

      Thanks for the comment, Celine!

      Like

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