My Take on Violence in Fiction
Last week Brandylin Collins interviewed Andy Meisenheimer, acquisitions editor over at Zondervan (See part 2 of the interview here). In one question, Brandylin asked Andy what his biggest frustration with the Christian industry was. This was part of Andy’s answer:
“I’m constantly surprised at how accepting we are of unnecessary violence in Christian fiction. Of the big three, violence, sex, and language, I’m pretty sure we should be least tolerant of violence, in books and in our own lives. In terms of realism, it’s much more realistic to me to have characters let loose with a damn or kickass or my God or a double entendre than have a villain shoot someone in the leg just for fun because he’s the bad guy. Not only is it a double standard, but it’s bad writing. How do I change this? Require my authors to write well. Make sure that everything in the book, from violence to shoestrings, serves the story.”
Ever since, his answer has been bugging the heck out of me, making me think about how I create evil characters, those bad guys who do violent things, and I think I understand what Andy is talking about. Is he saying that violence is unnecessary and bad writing? I don’t think so. What he’s saying is that unnecessary violence that doesn’t serve the story is bad writing. So is unnecessary kissing, unnecessary dialogue, unnecessary combing of the hands through the hair. If what we write our characters doing does not serve the story, it’s bad writing folks.
So what about having bad characters do really bad things? In real life there are bad guys who are calculating and passive, they’re evil to the core but are more subtle about acting on that evil, then there are the crazies out there, bad to the bone and crazy enough to act on it, sometimes in disgusting, violent ways. Both kinds of people exist so shouldn’t we write about both kinds?
Yes. The answer is to fully develop their characters, though. I think what Andy is getting at is having a bad guy do something really bad (like shoot someone in the leg just for the fun of it) as a means of showing how bad he is. Actions should be outcroppings of character and character needs to be developed. If you are making your character act bad to show how bad he/she is and that’s all the reader is getting, then you’re cheating the reader. All characters need to be developed; the reader needs to know why the bad guy is so bad.
I don’t think violence is unnecessary or bad writing, it’s real, we live with it every day. Open your newspaper or watch the news; violence is all around us. Vile, angry, evil violence. We should include it in our stories, but we need to make sure we aren’t making it some novelty to shock the reader or a short cut to taking the time to develop the character whose acting so vile.