Monday, December 16, 2013

There SHOULD Be Blood: Regarding Violence

As I've mentioned here before, I'm a fan of Lindsay Buroker's blog. She offers an incredible amount of information about her strategies for self-publishing, and she brings in excellent guest authors who provide expert info on a variety of topics. It's largely because of my appreciation for her blog that I went and downloaded a copy of her novel the Emperor's Edge. I liked the book, and I can see why the series is so popular: well-paced action, good-plotting, great characters, and some very vivid writing--I'll probably never forget the way Buroker described an assassin's body flowing like liquid through certain movements, and then snapping into rock-hardness at the moment of delivering a strike.

But!... there is one element of Buroker's writing that conflicts pretty stridently with my story-telling aesthetics: the way she portrays violence. Or to be more specific: the way that violence is a key part of her stories but sort of "glossed-over" at the same time. That assassin I mentioned at the end of the paragraph above, for example, is very convincingly portrayed as intimidating and ruthless. And yet, when he kills we don't really get a sense of horror from the description. There's very little blood or pain in the descriptions of the vast majority of the deaths in the book. Usually the assassin's victims are mere obstacles, and when they die they shed little more fluid than a cardboard cutout would.

Buroker is definitely not the only author to approach violence in this way. In fact, I'd say that her approach toward the portrayal of violence is pretty much in keeping with how most contemporary storytelling handles violence--as a mostly bloodless, PG-13, okay-for-kids type of thing (though there is a growing portion of popular storytelling, especially on cable television, that almost seems to delight in taking the other route: exaggerating violence to levels of cartoon-like gore--the True Blood vampires popping like blood-balloons--or taking a sadistic/macho glee in it--which seems to happen in shows like Dexter or Sons of Anarchy). The fact that an assassin--that is to say, a person who kills people on a regular basis, and only rarely for reasons of self-defense--can be cast as a hero instead of a sociopath is in itself pretty revealing about what today's audiences deem empathetic and worth-rooting-for.

In truth, now that I think about it, mentioning Lindsay Buroker as a way to introduce this topic is potentially misleading, too. It's not like I'm claiming she's responsible for setting the trend; as I've already mentioned, I think the violence in her work is reflective of a larger social shift, in which we are moving from telling stories, intended for a general audience, where the villian is "vanquished," to telling stories in which he is killed. And it's not like the goal of this post is to criticize Buroker's writing in particular--as I've also already mentioned, I respect and admire Buroker. But!... I started this post talking about Buroker because it was a specific scene in Buroker's novel The Emperor's Edge that started me thinking about this topic.

In the thirteenth chapter of the book, the main character witnesses a gladiator fight. There is some mention of the conflict she feels seeing two men forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of a crowd, there is even an allusion to the fact that the men look like friends being forced to fight (which is in itself a rather horrific idea). But the fight itself is sort of a peripheral thing to the action of the story, not a key event worthy of significant description, and this is how it ends:

"In the pit, a dagger found a chest, and the crowd cheered."

A dagger found a chest. That's about the most bloodless, oblique way of describing one person killing another that I can think of. It almost makes it seem like the dagger just happened to encounter an object which just happened to be part of a person. Because of the context, and what follows, we can assume that the person who had the chest that was "found" by said dagger died because of it, and that the person who did the killing felt horrible about it. But even in that moment in which the dagger finds the chest, our attention is diverted from that central happening and instead redirected to the crowd, which "cheered" the action that we've already skimmed past.

I think I understand why Buroker handles the scene this way. She doesn't want the death of one insignificant gladiator to distract the reader's attention from the story's plot. She worries that if she gives any weight to the death, or any detail that hints at the gruesomeness of a man being killed by a knife to the chest, it might make the reader pause and go "Geez, wouldn't that hurt" or "isn't that awful." The incident is mainly being used to reveal something important to the central story, namely the lack of human compassion felt by this crowd, and by the characters who have set up the event. They're so cold, they're so evil, that they'll make one friend kill another just for their own amusement.

Problem is, by using the "bloodless death" of a gladiator as a tool to show the crowd/characters' lack of value for human life--by reducing a man's death to something as oblique as a "dagger finding a chest"--the writer herself is failing to display the very characteristic who's lack defines the crowd/characters as evil. By using a death as a mere tool, and stripping that death of any blood or visceral weight, the writer make that death meaningless.

And maybe death shouldn't ever be meaningless. Maybe we're going down the wrong path when we'll plot a gladiator battle just to prove a point about a character or a crowd. Maybe, if we're dealing with death, we should make it bloody.

Maybe we should make it positively horrible.

I'm guessing there are people reading this post who think I'm going off the deep end a bit. "It's just a story," they'll say, and in a way I suppose they're right. In our culture we have a strangely casual relationship with death. Most of us eat animals that we almost never see alive, and never ever have to kill by ourselves. And at the same time, every television show or movie or story we read seems to have a death in it, or probably multiple deaths. We witness dozens--maybe hundreds--of fake deaths every week, but are almost never confronted with a real death--an event that happens maybe a few times in the course of the average person's life, and even then it's embalmed and made-up to look like something other than what it is.

So death becomes an abstraction for us--a bloodless, body-less thing.

In my writing I strive not to deal with death in this bloodless way. Whenever someone or something dies in one of my stories, I want there to be an element of it that unsettles the reader. Here's an example, taken from my novel Blood Brothers:

"He opened his eyes and looked back at Grillis. The young woodcutter’s face had gone even darker in color—now it looked nearly purple. His eyes were still open, bulging, though now they seemed to look past the cleric, off into some indefinite place. His legs kicked feebly, the heavy boot heels scraping against the cobbles.

"Athemon took the dagger out of his sleeve, transferred it to his right hand. He stepped toward the struggling pair of men, dagger in hand. The hammering in his head grew strong, and the world around him seemed distant and dreamlike—everything bright and honey-colored. He focused on the cleric, trying to ignore the pain in his head.

"The cleric had very blue eyes, and they were riveted on the dying woodcutter’s face.

"Athemon put the knife into the side of the cleric’s neck. It went in easily for the first several inches, and then hit something hard. The cleric turned his head to look at Athemon—an expression of horror on his face—and the motion made the knife’s point slide forward on a new course. The side of the blade slipped out through the front of the cleric’s neck, a shower of blood accompanying it.

"The cleric fell away from Athemon, to lie on his back beside Grillis. His hand came up to his throat, and he opened his mouth as if to speak, but no sound came out. Just more blood, gushing through his fingers. A moment later, he was dead."

In this scene one of the principle characters is saving the life of one the other principle characters. It's a heroic act, and yet it's described in a horrific way, which taps into my thought that death should always be horrible. I think it's also worth noting that there is plenty of blood in the description, which is also as it should be, at least in a scene describing a man's throat being cut. The sight of blood and gore make most of us uncomfortable, and that connects in my mind to the fact that we're uncomfortable with death. Which is a good thing. Which is something we shouldn't be glossing over.

In my opinion, anyway. If anyone wants to chime in with thoughts of their own, please feel free to leave a message in the comments section.


  1. I completely agree with this article, and it's one of the things about Lindsay's work that I've subconsciously made a note of myself. In my book, "Helldin's Lore" I went a similar route as you did in Blood Brothers, where I made it a point that every death should be gruesome and really have the air of a death. There's no point in killing a character if their death will hold the same weight as losing an arm wrestling match, in my opinion.

  2. Glad to know I'm not alone in these thoughts, Kizer. Congratulations on publishing "Helldin's Lore"!

  3. I tend to agree. Death is gruesome and should be depicted as such. I want my books to read that way. Otherwise it's like watching the old Samurai movies where the hero kills dozens and there's still no blood on his sword...or clothes, or face for that matter.

    To be fair however, audience needs to be considered too. If it's a YA or MG book, I don't know that the same realism is needed or even wanted. Sure we don't want to gloss over death, so that they are inadvertently taught it's no big deal, but I don't know that parents want their kids traumatised either. (Yes, that's a little tongue and check, I imagine you get the point though.)