On Writing Violence

When people ask what other authors have influenced my writing, the answer surprises some of them. Everyone expects me to name Tolkien, and, of course, I always do. They don’t expect me to name “Stephen King.” I confess—I love King’s books, especially the real door-stoppers like The Stand and The Talisman. I read everything the man puts out; I even pre-order. I am willing to pay a top-of-the-scale price for one of his kindle books. The man can tell a story. Not only does his writing keep me engaged for a thousand pages (The Stand), but I will read it over and over again.

Many of Mr. King’s works are undeniably violent. He loves to throw in all sorts of disgusting things to push our buttons—be they cockroaches, maggots, worms, or whatever. Nobody is simply “found dead.” We live through every agonizing detail of the character’s skin-peeling, bone-crushing, artery-spouting demise, as well as the complete and utter degradation of his moldering corpse. And, like many readers, I tune in with morbid fascination fully engaged.

Yet my own writing is surprisingly lacking in graphic, descriptive violence. I don’t provide too many gruesome details, relying instead on the reader’s no-doubt-active imagination. Part of the reason is that I write crossover books intended for young readers as well as adults, but I really think it’s a chicken-and-egg question. I set out to write a book on an adult level, and it turned out to be a crossover.

There is a lot of violence in Alterra. Gorgon Elfhunter does unspeakable things to the Elves—he tortures them and makes them suffer mightily before killing them—and those details would be very graphic if I chose to give them. Some description is necessary for the readers to understand what’s going on, but they are nothing a ten-year-old can’t handle. (For the record, I am amazed at the level of violence today’s ten-year-olds can handle.)

I should imagine this lack of descriptive, graphic violence annoys some readers. Fantasy today seems to be turning in an ever-darker and ever-more-grisly direction. If you enjoy the violent machinations of, say, George R.R. Martin, you might be disappointed in Alterra…or you might not. Sometimes readers need a break. Sometimes, regardless of age, we appreciate the ability to “turn away.”

I have noticed a few things when observing crowds of people witnessing the aftermath of violence. Some people clamor to get a front row seat—they want to view the disaster in every detail. They are the ones standing in the front of the crowd, looking up at the despondent fellow on the fourth floor ledge, perhaps hoping the fellow won’t actually jump but knowing that, if he does, they will be right there to see it. They are the ones who slow way down when driving past a horrific accident on the freeway, craning their necks for a better view. This is a natural human inclination, and I am not passing judgment of it.

Other people would rather not witness the violence pervading everyday life. They would rather not see the mangled victim; they would rather not read about the mother who strangled her children and shoved them in trash bags (photo on page six). They would rather turn away. I think it’s the same with readers. The reason many people enjoy the “Alterran approach” to violence is that it gives them the chance to turn away.

There are several advantages to this type of writing. One is that readers have the opportunity to engage their imaginations to whatever extent they desire. Trust me…some of them can imagine far more horrific things than I could ever describe. They can choose to view the violence, or they can choose to turn away. Therefore, I can sell the books to ten-year-olds.

I have found that, as a reader, both strategies are effective. I can savor the dripping corpses of King’s violent works, but I am no less affected by the gentle tragedy of some of his less graphic offerings, such as the novella The Body, on which the film Stand By Me is based. Sometimes, in fact, too much violence desensitizes me, and I am left with only morbid curiosity. That was the case with the Game of Thrones books. After awhile I just didn’t care.

I don’t want to desensitize readers in Alterra. I want to give them the choice of how deep into the bloody scene they want to sink. I want to give them the option of turning away. I want every character’s suffering to affect them; otherwise it loses meaning and impact.

I intend to keep to my course. Violence will always be a part of every world, even in fantasy, and just the right amount of description can evoke all the right emotions in my readers. But I will continue to leave them that choice—to plunge headlong into the bloody banquet, or to turn from it at the door. It’s worked for me so far. Besides, I want to continue selling books to ten-year-olds.

–CSM

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