author Steve Wiegenstein, historical fiction writing tips, portraying violence in historical fiction, the function of violence in fiction, The Language of Trees by Steve Wiegenstein, violence in historical fiction, writing tips
Curious how an idea for a topic comes about.
Steve Wiegenstein and I exchanged emails on topics for a guest post. After checking out my blog, he had this to say: “how about a post on the use of violence in historical fiction? Obviously, a lot of historical events involve violence, sometimes ghastly violence, but I am challenged by readers’ expectations versus the portrayal of reality …” Read on for more of Steve’s thoughts.
A beloved aunt once told me that she preferred one of my books over the others because “it doesn’t have so much blood and guts in it.”
And there in a nutshell is the writer’s dilemma. I want to please my readers, honest I do. But in order to meet the needs of a story, sometimes I have to write scenes that disturb them, unsettle them, perhaps even make them want to put down the book.
The portrayal of violence has been a concern in literature ever since Oedipus poked out his eyes. Aristotle’s notion that the ending of a tragedy provides “catharsis” for its viewers has served as a justification for violence, legitimate or not, for nearly as long. But writers and readers need to reexamine their assumptions regularly and question the proper uses and the potential effects of violence in a literary work.
For me, both as a writer and as a reader, the question always comes down to “What’s the function of the violence here?” All too often, the function is simply to heighten the drama or tension of a scene. I don’t find this type of violence useful or, ultimately, interesting. Some of the scenes of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket are insanely tense without a hint of violence in them. Tension and drama rise from our involvement in a situation, not from the degree of violence it contains; the more we care about the characters and what might happen to them, the greater the drama.
And yet, ghastly things happened in history, and we must write about them. How much is too much? How much is not enough?
So many books I read take an entertainment approach to violence. Either it is portrayed as heroic, with sympathetic characters dispatching villains in oh-so-many creative ways, or it’s portrayed as an element in the creation of the hero’s character. Authors seem to compete for new ways for their maniac-villains to torment other characters, as if coming up with original means of maiming or killing people is a high demand of creativity.
Personally, I don’t enjoy watching violence in movies or reading it in novels. But I recognize that it can serve important plot and thematic needs, so I grit my teeth and read. It troubles and offends me, though, when I sense that an artist is using violence simply to rev up a tired scene, or to cheaply buy an emotional reaction. That’s often the moment when I stop reading.
We all remember the shower scene in Psycho. What we may not remember is that we never see a knife enter flesh in that scene. As shocking as it is, it’s not especially violent, viewed shot by shot. What shocks in that scene is how unprepared we are for it, how sudden and brutal the attack is, just when we had begun to care about Marion and were readying ourselves to follow a story that had looked like it was going to be about a young woman’s difficult road to moral redemption.
And that’s the point, I think. The violence in Psycho is disturbing because it’s so much like real-world violence: unexpected, life-altering for everyone (the victim, most obviously, but also everyone around the victim), and horrifying to witness. In my mind, it’s a perfectly justified use of violence in a story. In Hitchcock’s later movies you see a turn away from the aestheticized movie violence that seems somehow acceptable and a turn toward the portrayal of violence in a much more upsetting way. The oven murder in Torn Curtain, the terrifying attacks in The Birds, and the ghastly strangulations in Frenzy. It’s as if Hitchcock is rubbing our face in the entertainment value of the very type of movies he was famous for making: “You think murder is fun, eh? Take a look at this!”
There are violent moments in my novels. In Slant of Light, there’s an axe killing, a hanging, and a fair number of gunshot deaths. This Old World keeps up the shootings, along with some stabbing and arson, and The Language of Trees, just out, actually contains a little bit of a murder mystery along with some dreadful—and morally ambiguous—killings. I try to make those moments surprising, repellent, and true to their characters and contexts. I never want my readers to enjoy those scenes, but I do want them to feel that the scenes are necessary. Violence is a part of human existence, so we can’t write away from it. But if you enjoy those scenes, I’m doing it wrong.
When I see news photos of American civilians strutting around supermarkets with guns on their hips or rifles slung over their shoulders, I fear that they have fallen prey to the mythmaking power of violence-as-entertainment. They see the imaginary role of violence as a problem-solver, not the real impact of violence on the people it envelops. I wish every instance of heroic, retributive violence in our popular books and shows would be balanced by a moment of severe reflection. But since that’s not going to happen, the best I can do is make sure the violence is my own books is justified, realistically portrayed, and significant enough that readers might just turn their gazes away and think.
Steve Wiegenstein’s most recent novel is THE LANGUAGE OF TREES (Blank Slate Press) – The inhabitants of Daybreak, a quiet 19th-century utopian community, are courted by a powerful lumber and mining trust and must search their souls as the lure of sudden wealth tests ideals that to some now seem antique. And the courtship isn’t just financial. Love, lust, deception, ambition, violence, repentance, and reconciliation abound as the citizens of Daybreak try to live out oft-scorned values in a world that is changing around them with terrifying speed.
Many thanks for such an interesting post, Steve. As someone who has written four novels with war as a backdrop, I find your perspective most helpful.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.