On Violence in Fiction


Violence is a very seductive tool in a writer’s arsenal. Most good fiction involves some form of conflict and although not all examples lead to an act, or acts, of violence, most do, including mine, but my thoughts on writing violent scenes have changed during the writing process.

In the first draft of Second Chance I had people committing acts of violence all over the place. There wasn’t an argument that didn’t lead to some form of physical altercation. Characters were swinging at each other at the slightest provocation. Too much sugar in your coffee? Bam! Didn’t like your haircut? Kerpow!* The longer the book went on, the more violent it became.

And it was a blast to write. It had action, pace – there’s nothing more satisfying than ramping up the tension to the point it explodes – and my word count rocketed as I went from one conflict to the next, giggling to myself at my inventiveness.

Then I got to one scene, set in an office, where two characters came to blows and it hit me**. I’d worked in an office environment for 25 years and, despite some very stressful, tense and emotional moments, not once had I seen people come to blows. Not once. I’d seen seething anger, shouting, gritted teeth and exasperation, but never physical violence. It made me ask myself a simple question. Why am I writing in this way?

In the western world we have a very strange relationship with violence. On the screen or in a book, we celebrate violence and those that partake in violence. We justify this hypocritical (and I count myself in this) stance of violence categorising it into two different camps: ‘bad’ violence: strong preying on the weak, and ‘good’ violence: strong stopping the bad people preying on the weak or weak standing up to the strong. On the screen, especially, we glamourise violence by putting it to music and creating almost balletic fight scenes. We cheer the good guys and boo the bad guys. It’s entertainment.

Yet in real life, most of us rightly abhor violence. While not unknown, witnessing violence first-hand is a thankfully rare occurrence and most people are shocked and appalled by violence in even its mildest form.

So why was I writing this way? Why so much violence?

The simple answer was because it was easy. It didn’t take much thought. It meant I didn’t have to deal with nuance, or depth, or any of those other things that are hard to convey in words. Rather than treat a scene realistically it was easier to go straight to the action. It was lazy writing.

I’m not saying all violent scenes are unnecessary, but using violence as the first resort, as opposed to how it is in real life, a last, is pure laziness. And not only that, it’s perpetuating the myth that violence is a solution, as opposed to a failure.

I went back through my manuscript and took out the majority of violent scenes. I searched long and hard for other ways to increase tension, only resorting to violence if there was no other plausible alternative. But at the same time I made another decision. If there was to be violence I wanted it to be realistic. I wanted it to be shocking. I didn’t want it to be toned down, or glamorous, I wanted it to be ugly and brutal. I did this not because I enjoyed writing that way but because I abhor violence.

As writers we have many choices, not just about what we write but how we write it. It’s very seductive to follow the cultural norm, to be swept along with what everyone else is doing without necessarily questioning the consequences of what we do.  By watering down violence in literature***, or even worse glamourising it, I believe we are perpetuating the myth that violence is OK, that it’s not too bad, that it’s honourable.

I realised I wanted to show the true impact of violence and its corrosive effect on society. And not just its effect on the victims of violence, but on those that perpetrate it too. I wanted to show how believing violence is a solution, whether the perpetrator believes it is justified, takes away their humanity. I wanted to strip the glamour from violence to show it for what it is.

Not everybody will agree with me, and not every reader will want to read violence depicted in this fashion, but I believe my books are much better for taking this stance, and my conscience is clearer for writing this way.

So what about you? What is your stand on violence in books, or in your own writing? I’d love to hear from you.


* This is an exaggeration but you hopefully get my point.

** Pun intended

*** I’m talking about fiction for adults, I have a different view when it comes to books for children.

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