Monday, May 6, 2013

Op-Ed: Has Fantasy Forgotten the Consequences of Violence?

I really did not expect my first post on violence in fantastic literature to take off as it did, but after it got mentioned on Sword and Laser (who got exactly what I was trying to say) and someone posted it on Reddit (who did not so much), I decided I needed to do a follow-up.

In my first post, I posited whether or not fantasy relies too much on violence to move the plot forward. After further thought on this question, I believe it to be true. There are many fantasy books where the entire plot revolves around a fight or a war. A Song of Ice and Fire is all about the battle for the throne. The Lies of Locke Lamora hinges on a fight with the Gray King. Harry Potter sets up a final battle between good and evil over six books (with smaller battles providing the climax for nearly every volume in the series). The Magicians ends with a battle with the Beast. The list is endless.

However, when I try to come up with fantasy books where the main plot does not revolve around violence, it becomes much more difficult. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a wonderful, tense novel with very little violence. Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip has more the threat of violence than actual violence, and although the plot sets up a violent climax, it is actually resolved through the cleverness of its characters (something not often seen in fantasy). The short stories of Ken Liu very rarely feature violence.

But this is just a look at violence as a quantitative force in fantasy. If we take for granted the fact that four out of every five fantasy books will have a non-negligible amount of violence in them, then should the discussion be less about whether fantasy has too much violence, and more about the purpose the violence serves?

I think this is the real discussion. In the previous article, I mentioned how violence works best when we're forced as readers to confront both the action and consequence. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess does a brilliant job doing this because of Nadsat. By being forced to decode what is going on in the work, we become intimate with the violence. Violence is shown to permeate this world in much the same way oxygen does.

The same could be said of Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Violence is visceral and harried in this work. Where most of the violence is perpetrated against non-human characters, we still are forced to confront the victim in the form of the Lord of the Flies. The pig's-head-cum-Baal becomes a manifestation of the darker side of morality. Violence becomes a physical, almost weighty presence in this world.

Good fantasy presents violence in a way that affects both the characters involved as well as the world in which the violence takes place. In The Lies of Locke Lamora, the violence is personal, intimate; the consequences deep and traumatic. When someone in Locke's life is killed, it affects him at his most base level. The need for vengeance drives Locke into a very dark place, and the lengths he goes to make the violators pay are shocking. Violence changes Locke, just as it would to someone in our primary world.

A Song of Ice and Fire is very violent, but in many circumstances, the violence has meaning and far reaching consequences. After a fight or a battle comrades are grieved over, foes are cursed, tallies are taken. However, the series seems to focus on the consequences of shocking violence: an assassination, an ambush, an orchestrated martial campaign, a naval attack. Casual violence -- especially sexual violence -- often goes without comment or consequence. This is the type of violence that I believe detracts from a work; a video game type of violence where the only purpose is to increase the body count by one.

Violence without purpose is not only harmful to a work, it's dangerous. It's a sociopathic type of violence that may have unintended consequences for the work as a whole. There are times when this violence is necessary and fits the work, but more often than not, it comes off as cheap and vulgar.

The oxymoronic phrase "realism in fantasy" is often used to justify copious amounts of violence in a work. Okay. As much of a problem as I have with that phrase, I'll indulge it. Use violence to make a work seem "more real." For this to remain true, the violence needs to be visceral, but tempered by reaction and emotion. If violence occurs, it should be explored.

Think of the real world. If I punched you in the mouth, neither of us would walk away and think about what spells we may need on our upcoming journey to the Dark Lands. No, you would either punch me back, cover up, or flee. I would keep punching, give chase, or try to hide from the fuzz. Either way, the only thoughts in our head for the next few hours or days would be related to the punch. You may take up self-defense courses. I may become paranoid about going to prison. I may try to make amends. You may confront me. Our lives would be changed, possibly for good. It wouldn't be a punch in a vacuum. Punches do not exist in vacuum.

Extrapolate that further to the extreme violence of murder and genocide often seen in fantasy and you can see what I'm trying to get at. Even when tens of thousands of people die in a war, they are killed by other people. All these people -- violators and victims -- have minds and lives and histories and desires. Violence is an active process that characters engage in. So should be the aftermath. There needs to be reflection and consequence. Even if a character's reflection is that they don't want to reflect on what they just did or what happened to them, that counts as a reflection and says a lot about their character.

To jump back to a quantitative approach to fantasy, I think the big misinterpretation is: "Stories need conflict, therefore stories need violence." Conflict does not necessarily mean violence. We all go through conflicts everyday and end with anything but pints of blood. I'm going to can of worms this topic and do another post on the difference between conflict and violence.

What works do you think handle violence the best? The worst? Is it time for fantasy to look at alternative plots, where violence doesn't extend beyond a fistfight and tension is created in different ways? Is violence the easy way out?

Please respond. Or punches.


  1. Great post. Same with your first one. I don't have any literary examples to answer your questions with. As far as games go: Kentucky Route Zero tells a magical realist story (so kinda like fantasy) without violence. I'd recommend playing the first episode if you haven't already. It's short and not expensive.

    For the record: I'd love to read your chef fantasy story. That sounds really cool and different.

  2. Yes! This is something I set out to show. Violence, death, loss have powerful emotional consequences. I suppose it could be argued that in a time and place where they are more common than in our culture, these consequences are less, but I don't believe they are ever negligible.

  3. I had to give up on Martin's books because of the unrelenting violence. Even the so-called 'knights' (who in most literature have some form of code of ethics or morality) are nothing more than armored thugs who seem to kill for sport. It's as if the idea of a conscience wasn't even an afterthought.

  4. You raise some interesting points, Adam, and pinpoint one of my main gripes with ASOIAF - the blasé attitude to rape, and the negative attitude generally towards women and sex (as exemplified in Tyrion's backstory).

    On the more general issue, I think there are two possible explanations:

    1. Many modern-day writers don't have direct experience of violence - I know I don't.

    2. Some of us are writing about eras when attitudes were very different from now, when parents were advised to beat their children for their own good and it was legal to beat your wife as long as the stick wasn't more than a certain diameter! So whilst the horrors of pitched battle and siege warfare may have taken their psychological toll, I imagine the average medieval or Renaissance citizen was a bit more inured to casual violence than we are.

    I do take your point, though, about the centrality of war in fantasy. I'm planning a new series at the moment, and one of my aims is to make it epic-ish without resorting to war as the main conflict. Because honestly, I don't know a thing about war beyond what I've read in books, and have no great urge to write about it.

  5. Well, I will say that atimes, fantasy though like the impossible depends on the focus of the mind and when the situation changes, that means that the mind has been properly put to work without avoidable errors.

  6. As a writer of fantasy and SF, I aspire to write stories in these genres that do not hinge on violence but on interactions between characters. Worldbuilding and characters were always the things that drew me to fantasy, not the tired "good vs. evil" plot. I mostly find military conflict in fantasy dull, and it's not the kind of story I want to write. I hope my future readers will like what I have to offer. :)