There have been some recent discussions about the reasons—or lack thereof—for writing scenes of intense violence, specifically in the fantasy genre, which is ostensibly (but not really) about escaping the real world.
“What’s the point?” readers ask. “Why continue with such a reprehensible character?” “What does it say about me as a reader to keep on this path?”
If you don’t gravitate toward dark or violent subject matter, this is not an entreaty to toss aside your moral convictions or your personal entertainment palette to go down that road. But there are reasons writers explore these themes that have nothing to do with entertainment or shock.
Fiction, it’s no secret, is largely informed by the sociopolitical climate in which it is born. There was a time when Superman was the most popular and loved hero in Western comics, and that was because we needed him at the time. Somewhere along the line, a subtle shift began to occur. In the place of what readers saw as the “righteous boy scout” image, Batman was the Dark Knight. Readers gravitated toward him because he was willing to get his hands dirty to fight the good fight. He was a mortal man burdened with the drive to enact change.
From Batman we moved to Wolverine, who followed many of the same convictions without the restraint when it came to doling out violence–even death. He’d sooner gut a criminal than throw him in jail. Noble? Not remotely. Honest? Absolutely. The reason Wolverine is such an enduring character, even if his fictional history is paltry compared to the aforementioned DC juggernauts, is that he is a man who knows exactly what he is. And he is what his world made him.
Sure, there is a “cool factor” associated with characters who live in the shadows, fight by their own code and endure in the face of overwhelming odds. But that is not enough for these archetypes to endure as they had, to fade and then resurface when the real world calls on them to do so.
The Fantasy genre is no different. The worlds writers create are largely informed by the characters who inhabit them. It is an inextricable causal link that has no beginning and no end, as long as there is thematic intent on the part of the creator. (Not always the case, I’ll admit.)
For me, putting my characters in violent situations—both as victim and killer—places them in a crucible through which change can occur, for better or worse. When people talk about character arcs, they’re talking about evolution. When Frodo returns to the Shire at the close of Lord of the Rings, he is changed, and despite some naïve claims to the contrary, it is not all for the better. He sees the world differently and—whether they’d admit it or not—his fellow hobbits see him differently.
All stories need conflict. And not all conflict needs to be physical in nature. But it does need to be traumatic enough to enact the change readers want to see and creators want to show. Internal violence is still violence. A sword is an agent of violence just as violence is an agent for change. It is a tool for shaping—for making through unmaking.
This is the reason stories like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Malazan Book of the Fallen and The Broken Empire are so prominent in the current zeitgeist of genre fiction. It won’t always be this way. In fact, the pendulum is already swinging in some circles. The emergence of the noblebright sub-genre is evidence enough of that fact. There will be a time when the Superman archetype reigns supreme once more, because the collective consciousness will need him too.
But don’t forget. Even Superman rules through power. Through violence. His very birth occurred during the mass genocide of his people. He is an eternal victim, which makes him the perfect hero for the same.
Don’t show me a character who started noble and became heroic. Don’t even show me one who started wicked and changed his ways. I won’t buy it. Instead, show me one who knows who he is, knows his base nature, and then show me how he fights against it. How he wins the small battles even if he loses the war.
In my own life, I sought out violence as a crucible. I fought on mats, in gyms and in rings for years. Not because I enjoyed the experience. Not because I liked winning or hated losing. I did it to be pushed, and I was. Too far in many ways. But it was in the worst moments, balancing on the edge of victory or defeat where I found that little something I didn’t know for sure was there. Now I know it. And there’s a comfort in that, even if the scars I carry from those trials bow my shoulders and shorten my strides at too young an age.
There will always be those who read and watch for the shock or the perverse satisfaction. But there are those who appreciate the beauty in the chaos. The music between the beats.
In the end, change is change. Change is why we read, and it’s why many of us write. And change is not always possible. It’s in the attempt where we find what nobility is otherwise lacking.
It’s why we admire Logen Ninefingers even as we mourn for him and his victims. It’s why we follow Jorg Ancrath down his dark and bloody path. And it’s why Jaime Lannister is one of the most compelling characters in the history of the genre.