Friday, April 19, 2013

Op-Ed: Removing the Violence from Fantasy

Right now, I'm working on an idea for a secondary world urban fantasy about a young man who enters a very opulent city looking to become a master chef. The story follows his journey through various culinary-related careers -- farmer, butcher, fisherman, baker, patissier, commis -- until he opens his own restaurant and becomes a known quantity within the city. Although it doesn't even sound like it would need to be set in a fantasy city, I'm still making it a fantasy because I'm comfortable with fantasy and I also want to explore the magic in food. Outside of writing and reading, cooking is a passion of mine.

However, as I've been outlining and drafting this novel (working title: Stock), it occurred to me that I was writing a fantasy novel with almost no violence (outside of a fistfight or two). The plot is resolved through hard work and cleverness. It got me to wondering why there aren't more fantasy (or science fiction) novels that deal with issues outside of violence?

Searching the web, I found a few really interesting articles on violence, such as this one from Kotaku. A similar thread on creating non-violent narratives came up on the IGDA mailing list recently. Is it time that genre media diversifies into non-violent narratives as well?

Most of my favorite novels are violent: The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Gone Away World, The Book of the New Sun, This Book is Full of Spiders, Rumo, Harry Potter. Violence is a part of these worlds, and it's handled in a respectful manner. Also: most of the violence in these books mean something. When someone dies in Locke Lamora or Harry Potter, it shatters the characters.

There are also a lot of novels I enjoy where violence is minimal or non-existent: Perdido Street Station, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Alchemaster's Apprentice, Desolation Road, The Bards of Bone Plain. The characters in these novels solve problems with their minds and not their magic swords. It opens up a whole new avenue of storytelling.

Even as I'm writing this, I'm having a difficult time coming up with non-violent novels that aren't humorous or middle grade. Going middle grade, there are all sorts of wonderful books that aren't violent: Maniac McGee, Stargirl, Holes, Dancing Carl, Wayside School is Falling Down (a personal favorite of mine). However, these are all real world stories. Middle grade fantasy is also violent.

I don't have a problem with violence in media. Growing up playing Doom, Quake, and Goldeneye gave me a high tolerance for stylized violence. I do have a problem with real(istic) violence, of the sort portrayed in Battlefield and Call of Duty, but not enough of a problem to forgo these titles altogether. Real world violence disturbs me greatly, whether it's footage from a war zone or from a UFC fight (I could rant for ages on all the reasons why I hate combat sports, especially UFC, but I won' least not right now). It makes me physically ill to see. With the former, I force myself to watch it. The recent tragedy at the Boston Marathon was very trying, but I monitored the coverage because I felt it was an important event.

I don't know why we have such a fetish for violence in media. Most major fantasy releases deal almost exclusively with violence it seems: A Song of Ice and Fire, The First Law, The Prince of Thorns, etc. But even with a near constant barrage of dismemberment, in book form, it's still easy to skip over violence because we can choose not to visualize or acknowledge it. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgress works so well because Nadsat forces you to confront the shocking violence.

So many fantasy novels that are focused on finding the magic sword or crystal gauntlet or whatnot. In science fiction, it's always about raising an ancient rail canon from the surface of a dying star or carpet bombing the planet of the flufftoids. In horror, it's about turning birds inside out, or making lampshades out of skin.

Violence is easy. How many times did our parents tell us this very thing? Using words is more difficult than simply socking someone in the jaw. Same thing in writing. Violence has consequences that most books don't delve enough into.

I'm not saying books shouldn't have violence. Violence is a part of our world and I assume all other worlds as well. But why do our protagonists need to be fencers and jousters and knights and battlemages? Can't we write compelling stories about dancers and merchants and chemists and cooks?

Again, I'm not condoning or rejecting violence. I have already pre-ordered The Republic of Thieves. I can't wait for the third volume in The Kingkiller Chronicles. My most anticipated movie of the year is Pacific Rim (don't judge). I just feel like there should be more variety.

My question for the peanut gallery: what are your favorite non-violent fantasies? Who are your favorite non-violent protagonists? What role should violence play in fiction?

I await your responses with open arms and knuckledusters. Until then, I leave you with this:


  1. I can't remember reading a fantasy book focused on finding the magic sword or crystal gauntlet or whatnot... certainly none of those you mentioned do that.

  2. I was being purposefully hyperbolic. Most modern fantasy has deeper motives than that.

  3. Your whole post is built on hyperbole though.

    "Most major fantasy release deal almost exclusively with violence"

    That's nonsense. There may be a lot of violence in ASOIAF but it's ridiculous to say that it deals exclusively with violence. If none of what you say is intended to be taken seriously then I miss the point of the post.

  4. That was a poor choice of words. I did not mean to make the whole post hyperbolic. The point I was trying to make with the post -- and I did get side-tracked a bit -- was that a lot of modern fantasies move and resolve their plots through violence, and that I would like to see more diversity in the ways fantasy is written. In my opinion, fantasy is becoming ever more violent, almost leaning on violence as a crutch. I don't know why this is, but in my experience, it's easier to move a plot along by putting the protagonist and antagonist in a fight than to build a convincing mystery or non-violent confrontation. It could be lazy authorship (not that ASOIAF is lazy authorship, as there are quite a few plots that are forwarded by cunning and diplomacy) or a response to the market. Diversity is a must in genre literature, and I think major fantasy releases with non-violent protagonists could help open up new storytelling avenues.

  5. I don't know how it's nonsense to say that ASOIAF deals almost exclusively with violence. The story is about a series of people fighting for the throne of Westeros while a force of the dead slowly creeps down from the north. It is a massive war-narrative. I love those books, but it is what it is - and it is violent.

    And as far as magical swords and crystal gauntlets go, Adam's obviously pointing a finger at quest narratives where the story revolves around finding some ancient jibber-jabber to solve a problem or fight a foe, or journeying to a specific place for a resolution. Swords and crystal gauntlets are obviously a generalization of that, but It's hardly difficult to know what he's talking about.

    Concerning the content of this post: western narratives do rely on violence an awful lot. You need only look as far as our movies and television shows (and our media) to see how enamored we are with it. Adam asks the very legitimate questions "Why is this?" and "is it necessary?" That's the type of conversation that fanboys and fangirls should be having, as it furthers the cause of writing and literature in general. Instead, we're too busy being anonymous cowards nitpicking blog-posts because we don't like anyone asking questions about our beloved genres.

    In the future, please keep in mind: if your delicate temper can't withstand a few questions being asked about what you love, maybe don't read the blogs that ask those questions.

  6. wow - Dan, you get today's moron award. Well done!

    That's me finished with this blog. And kudos to Adam for passing your post, classy x 2. Bet he doesn't pass this one.

    "Anonymous cowards" gosh ... that one will have me chuckling all all day. Wow... I'll slap 'Dave' at the top of this one. Are you a happy boy now? :D

  7. I pass all comments that aren't spam, racist, sexist, or hurtful toward marginalized groups.

  8. No I'm not, Dave. I'm very hurt and pretty sad. But at least I'll have that moron award to keep me warm on my cold nights alone.

    You are the wind beneath my wings, and I'll always love you. I always have.

  9. We've had plenty of examples of glorious ancient megastructures or artefacts being sought for and then destroyed in the course of the resolution of fantasy plots. It'd be nice to have one or two books about the creation of them.

    The politics around whether it should be done and who is going to pay for it, the hubris of the creator, how it ended up being lost for centuries - I want to read that story.

    1. You and me both, Amigo. far too few drama stories like that set in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Or, at least far too few that I've been exposed to.

    2. The Pillars of Earth by Ken Follet deals with the building of the Kingsbridge Cathedral in England, although that's not technically fantasy. Also, Kij Johnson's award-nominated story "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," is, well, about building a bridge.

  10. Very little violence in Terry Pratchet.

  11. "Can't we write compelling stories about dancers and merchants and chemists and cooks?"

    Maybe you can write them but who wants to read a fantasy novel about a dancer or chemist?

  12. Well I certainly would, and I know quite a few people in the fantasy community who enjoy one-off fantasies like that as well. If it was well written, there is definitely a market for it.

  13. I fully agree with this post. I haven't read much fantasy but, I decided to do so. So I did my research, and found out extremely positive reviews on the books: Game of Thrones, The Way of Kings, The Dark Tower series, and other books. I realized that they are mostly based on violence, dark suspence, etc. Even this book that you point out- The Alchemaster's Apprentice- does not seem very light, relaxing read (the protagonist's life is in danger, etc.).I would like to really find a light-hearted, bright, relaxing fantasy novel(which is not based on humour).

    P.S. I am not a native English speaker, as you probably noticed.