books · discussions · shanti

Discussion: How do you feel about literary Violence

Hi there Virtually Readers. Today I want to talk about violence in books. It’s a deep discussion, so get ready to set in. Violence is something that I always think about, particularly in fantasy, and it’s portrayal matters a lot to me.

violence

First off, let me explain what I mean by violence. I mean humans intentionally hurting each other (or animals, I guess?). Violence in books exists in a variety of ways. One: The main character of a book does something violent. Two: The main character of a book has something violent done to them. Three: Violence happens and characters that we care about are not involved, but it’s there. Almost all books have violence of some kind(physical, verbal, etc.). It fuels the plot. It creates tension. But how necessary is it?

So here’s the thing: I, personally, do not like gratuitous or unnecessary violence. I see books praised for being ‘brutal’ or ‘savage’ or even just plain ‘violent’… and that’s a positive thing? What level of violence is acceptable? I guess that that level will be different for every single person, but is there such a thing as too much violence? And how can you decide what is unnecessary and what isn’t?

For me, I think that when violence is added for shock factor, it is unnecessary. It is completely possible for there to be a strong emotional moment without violence—and don’t get me wrong, that’s fairly common, and obviously you can tell from the genre of a book how much violence there’ll be (like contemporary doesn’t have much, but thrillers and fantasy have more). I think that everyone will agree that violence is not a positive thing. Various studies have shown that, to a greater or lesser degree, violence in media normalises it, and I for one don’t want to live in a society where violence is normal. But if I didn’t read books with violence in them, I wouldn’t be able to read much that isn’t children’s non-fiction. (because kids fiction is horribly violent).

It’s hard to know this going into a book—and part of the reason I like to stick to YA and look at sites like Common Sense Media—but I am unhappy with a book if it demonises the person you are fighting. If it says that ‘they are bad because they are bad and therefore they deserve to die.’ Old time fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, or even Narnia, is totally guilty of this. Two books that I think have a sensible portrayal of violence are An Ember in the Ashes and Days of Blood and Starlight. Both of these (truly superb) novels do, indeed, contain a lot of violence. But they consistently say that violence is not a way of life that we should be comfortable with, and advocate for peace.

“Dead souls dream only of death. Small dreams for small men. It is life that expands to fill worlds. Life is your master, or death is.” –Days of Blood and Starlight.

“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love and dared to imagine a new way of living—one without massacres and torn throats and bonfires of the fallen, without revenants or bastard armies or children ripped from their mothers’ arms to take their turn in the killing and dying.”-Days of Blood and Starlight

“Seeing the enemy as a human. A general’s ultimate nightmare.” –an Ember in the Ashes (that was sarcasm btw)

See, people are powerful. The words we read and the words we write and the words we say are powerful. Isn’t this a belief that all book lovers hold? And as a book lover, I don’t want violence. I don’t want to be violence (hasn’t the news of the last week made you think about that). I don’t really want to read violence, because violence is not the right answer. I want to read books where the violence is complicated and terrible (and maybe I just want to read that which reflects my own beliefs, but isn’t that okay?).

*climbs down from soapbox*. Sooooo what do you think? How do you feel about portrayals and perceptions of violence in books? Do you have any recommendations for books with a more complex depiction of violence, or do you want reccommendations? Tell me in the comments.

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15 thoughts on “Discussion: How do you feel about literary Violence

  1. I’m much like the other sentiments that are present out there in this list but yeah, violence in real life horrifies me and it makes me really sad, for a lot of reasons. It’s terrible. But in books? It doesn’t bother me a ton… I mean, the only thing that I can think of in terms of violence that bothered me was in SIX OF CROWS, and I ended up really liking that book and feeling like the the violence added to the quality and power of the story. So… I mean… It isn’t like it should be glorified in books, but I sort of appreciate it when it’s done well? Not that it’s a good thing. But still. I don’t have a good answer.

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    1. I guess it’s good to ask ourselves why we feel that way, why violence in books adds to the story and violence in real life is awful. Why do we carry that distinction with us. Like you said, I don’t have an answer either. Six of Crows was such an interesting book- definitely a good one to think about the role that violence plays.

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  2. Considering I watch Game of Thrones I’m probably not one to preach against violence. But like Cait said, I cannot stand it in real life. Things like Orlando just make me absolutely sick. I feel like violence can make things very real, though, which is often a good thing if you’re trying to make changes to how people view violence.

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    1. Real violence is horrible and scary. I think books need to show it that way- like, violence should never be normalised in stories or in the real world. Violence is definitely vivid, and can make you feel all the things, like compassion and anger and fear and rage, which is why it’s so valuable a currency in stories. I guess the thing is not to inflate the currency. 🙂

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  3. This is such an interesting post. For me personally, I’m okay with violence in books if it’s absolutely necessary to make a point or to help tell the story. If it’s overused or used unnecessarily, that’s when I’m not a huge fan of it. Thanks for sharing and, as always, great discussion post! ❤

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    1. Yeah, that’s a good way to think about it. Violence is sometimes needed in stories- the question is, is it sometimes needed in the real world? And if it isn’t can we tell stories without violence? Still trying to figure that one out…

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  4. Great theme Shanti,
    I too cringe at all the stories where it is great and glorious when the (fair, good, beautiful) goodies kill but shameful and despicable when the (ugly, grotesque, dark) baddies do. Do you think, actually that is how us tribal human beings are? If so the deep theme here is whether the novelist’s role is to tell us our story, or tell us how our story should be. I struggle to think of stories where the hero rejects violence and takes a beating instead. Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” maybe. OK the Bible. Shakespeare gives us violent heroes then cathartically destroys them by violence. Pure pacifism is incredibly courageous, but not sexy. Perhaps tribal book buying humans only make tribal destroy-the-baddies authors successful?

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    1. thanks! Violence is something that help people to understand themselves- because everyone has violent urges sometimes and not expressing them can be hard. It’s better to read/write about violence than actually commit violence I guess? Well, I would advocate for a more nuanced mindset than goodie/baddie- which is what some of the books I’ve quoted have. Maybe?

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  5. Eeep, this is a hard one for me because I feel like I’m of very two definite minds about it. In real life = I cannot stand violence. I avoid the news and I freak out when I see people neglecting their dogs and I can’t be around people who physically punish their kids. I CANNOT. It just makes me sick and angry.
    But I do read a lot of violent books and I’m totally okay with that. GAH. I’M LIKE A PARADOX HERE?? But I agree that I want violence to be the BAD THING IN BOOKS. That’s how I write it. I write very dark/violent books but I think that’s because it disturbs me so much?? So I write it as the Greatest Evil and I write about people who wish life was different but are usually forced into violent lives. So long as books are fighting against violence (even if they do it with violence) then I’m okay with it. But I do like dark books. (I did think An Ember in the Ashes had a ton of pointless violence though. Like it was just there to shock the audience but didn’t actually advance the plot? #notafan)

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    1. There are all the old arguments about whether experiencing violence in media causes violence irl. I’ve read academic articles about that and the consensus seems to be ‘only in exceptional cases’. I feel like violence is disturbing, like you say, and it maybe shouldn’t be something we enjoy reading about- it’smore like something we HAVE to read about to understand it (rather than through personal experience). An Ember in the Ashes was really violent. I read it a while ago so maybe I would feel differently now? But the chracters nuanced responses to violence were what I appreciated I guess.

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  6. To be honest, you’re right. Violence shouldn’t be normalised. We do live in a society where violence against ‘bad people’ is acceptable. But what is a ‘good’ person. You might think that that person over there is good because he donates blood, but what if he secretly beats up his siblings at home? Not messing about but LEGIT beating them up. I can understand this but… I think my bullies should PAY for what they have done, but I don’t want them to be killed or beaten up badly.

    I am guilty though, of being happy whenever a ruthless character gets killed or injured terribly. The pain the victim was caused makes me to feel this anger towards the ruthless antagonist.

    I guess, in Battle Royale. It was terribly savage. Almost unnecessarily. However, I still like the book. I dunno… the harm being done to the characters made me feel sorry for their deaths and I missed their absence. However, in The Hunger Games everything is so swift and I felt nothing. Even after Rue died. Even after Rue died.

    It would be good if violence were to become less acceptable but let’s face it, that’s never going to happen.

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    1. Violence is sort of risky territory because it’s so easy to turn it into an ‘us vs. them’ e.g. we’re the good guys so it’s okay if we kill the bad guys because they’re bad and we’re right. Books with violence need to show the complexity of conflict, so that we can see both sides- because us vs. them is such dangerous thinking. I still have hope that violence as a solution might happen one day…

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  7. Such a great post ❤ I have to admit, I don't really like unnecessary violence in books, but I can sort of understand when that happens in such an apocalyptic world such as the 5th Wave or something, but I'm not a fan of it. I think it has to serve a good purpose to the story, and not to be there just for the sake of getting a little action here and there. 🙂

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    1. Thank you. Violence seems to be a facter that help people understand themselves, I guess? Unnecessary violence really annoys me- there can be great non-violent action scenes, right?

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