To wrap up our series on violence in books, I wanted to look at the philosophical side of this problem. As recently featured author Aya Walksfar wrote, “Like it or not, accept it or not, authors impact the world by setting up limits for acceptable behavior, admirable behaviors and how greatly one can dream. We must use that power wisely.”

So what if your novel involves a dreadful crime like rape, murder, or assault? I don’t think you should just skirt the issue by having all the action happen offstage, all the time (though, as we saw in our post on three ways to handle violence, it is an option). But if you choose to show it, in some way, what are you saying about violence?

For example, if I write the following:

She turned the corner, sending gravel flying as she scrambled forward, her breathing hard. He was right behind her. Another step, and she could feel his nails scraping the fabric of her shirt, trying to seek a handhold on her body. She swiped at him, and their arms collided. She’d be bruised there tomorrow, but now, all she could think about was escape. The impact had thrown her off her stride, and as she turned away from him, he caught her by the shoulder.

Now, as a reader, I’m faced with a few options. I can identify with her—which is obviously the easiest, since she’s the point-of-view character—or I can identify with the man following her. If this scene gets more violent, though, my identification becomes critical. Have I just put myself in the shoes of a victim, to experience their trauma and horror? Or have I joined forces with a criminal?

And what if I take no sides whatsoever, if I remain outside the two characters as a bystander? But if I’m “just watching,” then I am standing by, doing nothing, while this man assaults this woman, in some form or fashion (mugging or worse). Wouldn’t writing a scene, in such a way, possibly encourage an attitude of voyeurism around violence, a “it’s not me who’s involved so I can just watch” stance on horrible crimes? And what will happen to our society if we become conditioned to this attitude? Will we react to real life crimes in the same way, because we’ve practiced it so much in fiction?

Another problem to consider is the level of details. In my scene above, we saw things through the supposed victim’s viewpoint (though she could be the villain of the piece and he’s just trying to capture her for the sake of justice). Thus far, all the details are things she could’ve noticed, but what if I want more details in the scene? Based on what I’ve read from actual, real life stories, the victims don’t always remember every detail. The exact particulars of what happened, where it happened, and how it happened tend to get blurred into one big jumble, with odd details like smell, color, or texture standing out. They don’t notice everything as it happens because the horror and surprise and shock of it all numbs them to some of the minutiae. Consider the following:

He took a step back and knocked the table over. The lamp crashed to the ground with a splintering tinkle, and his bare feet encountered the shards on the floor. He squished the lampshade as he retreated before her, irrevocably denting the fabric. They’d traveled hours to get that lamp shade, the only one that could fit her favorite lamp, And now it was broken.

Her perfume still lingered in the air, but it had turned into a noxious smell, like the scent of a poisonous flower. And still she came, her blue eyes as calm as the ocean. He could see the wrecks of ships and tragedies of mariners in those eyes. But he wasn’t waving a white flag and locking himself in his captain’s cabin just yet.

The above paragraph contains a lot of details that, chances are, the victim wouldn’t notice. It’s all very immediate and delightfully tense, but would he really look at the lamp shade, after it falls? He’s backing away from the woman without noticing what’s behind him, so he’s probably watching her every move. Now, she might notice the lamp shade, and her perfume, and the way his feet are cut by the broken pieces of glass, but it’s probably a blur to him. He may not even realize his feet are being harmed in any way until later.

As the aggressor, the woman is in control of this scene right now. She has considered her options and, in some measure or another, she knows what’s about to happen. She knows what she’s going to do to the man, and she’s far more mentally prepared for the horror she’s going to cause. So she might notice (and maybe even relish) the details of this encounter, but he probably won’t.

Thus, even though the scene above is written from the man’s point-of-view, the details are those that the criminal (or threatening assailant, at least) would notice, not the victim. He’d still be struggling with how this happened, and why, and whether he could’ve done anything to avoid it, all mixed up with watching her and looking for a way to escape.

Of course, an omniscient narrator, like Dickens used, can notice anything and everything about a violent encounter, which is why, in the scene from Oliver Twist we examined earlier, he included Sikes’ actions and Nancy’s actions, in equal measure. Sikes might not notice all of Nancy’s chatter, but Dickens’ narrator does. He might be distracted by his trying to get her away from him so he can kill her, but the narrator is free to record every word without interruptions. By contrast, in first person or third person limited, the details are going to be highly filtered based on how the trauma of the scene affects the characters.

So, as authors, we not only have to consider what we’re doing to our readers by showing them violent scenes, in graphic detail. We also have to consider whether the details match the narrative viewpoint we’ve picked.

Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by cooee, Creative Commons

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