It Must Be That Time of Year Again: A Response to Has Fantasy Forgotten the Consequences of Violence?

There’s a post up at A Dribble of Ink, Has Fantasy Forgotten the Consequences of Violence? by Adam Calloway that asks

…it occurred to me that I was writing a fantasy novel with almost no violence (outside of a fistfight or two). The plot is resolved through hard work and cleverness. It got me to wondering why there aren’t more fantasy (or science fiction) novels that deal with issues outside of violence?… Is it time that genre media diversifies into non-violent narratives as well?

If we take for granted the fact that four out of every five fantasy books will have a non-negligible amount of violence in them, then should the discussion be less about whether fantasy has too much violence, and more about the purpose the violence serves?

I think this is the real discussion. I’ve suggested that violence works best when we’re forced as readers to confront both the action and consequence.

A while back, I was shocked out of a book by a popular MG/YA writer by the casual violence of a pre-teen casually killing a foot soldier of the enemy. It happened in passing, on the way to the important confrontation, without emotional consequence for the character either immediate or in the future.

Good fantasy presents violence in a way that affects both the characters involved as well as the world in which the violence takes place.

That’s Adam again, but it’s essentially the thought I had as I began to write my own YA fantasy, which I couldn’t help but see as in conversation with the book by the popular writer. I was determined that violence would be relatively easy for some and relatively hard for others, but it would always have consequences, both immediate and in the future. Around the same time I read What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes and On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society Dave Grossman. Both those books talk about how hard it is, even for soldiers trained (read psychologically broken down and rebuilt as soldiers) and facing enemy fire, to kill. The latter includes information such as during World Wars I and II, only and estimated 15-20% of frontline soldiers actually fired their weapons and of that, many fired into the air instead of at the enemy. The numbers are even lower for earlier wars and, according to the author, hold true for whichever nation you study. Later, armies got much better at getting soldiers to kill, but even so, Karl Marlantes, who fought in the Vietnam War, talks as much about the times he didn’t kill as much as the incandescent joy he felt when he did.

Violence happens of course, but even in war, even in the Medieval Ages, which we think of as brutal and ugly (although this article by Kelly DeVries, a medieval historian, tells us they were actually very boring (sorry, the article has been moved beyond a paywall)) the actual hacking and mayhem occurred less than we like to think it did. And violence, when it is used, in our present day and stretching back into the past, is often used against women, children, marginalized people and, as Liz Bourke reminded us, against male soldiers captured in war.

A Song of Ice and Fire is very violent, but in many circumstances, the violence has meaning and far reaching consequences. After a fight or a battle comrades are grieved over, foes are cursed, tallies are taken. However, the series seems to focus on the consequences of shocking violence: an assassination, an ambush, an orchestrated martial campaign, a naval attack. Casual violence — especially sexual violence — often goes without comment or consequence. This is the type of violence that I believe detracts from a work

I agree with Adam. I can’t read the more explicitly violent books and I rarely see, much less enjoy, the blockbuster Hollywood movies because of their emphasis on meaningless, endless, gory violence and action for the sake of moving. It’s boring and offensive at the same time, to me. It’s also lazy, probably a symptom of our ongoing and never-ending wars (drone strikes, anyone?) and says something about the American psyche that we probably all don’t want to know. But it’s also a symptom of chasing the already has been done: The Matrix was incredibly popular, we’ll make another movie just like it, but with more violence! Some video game was incredibly popular (I betray my ignorance about them), we’ll make another just like it, but with more violence! Hollywood is still chasing what they imagine are the tastes of the 16-24 year old males (why should they be any more right about this than they are about what women like? Have you tried to sit through a “romcom” lately?) and the rest of our entertainment follows suit because for most of us our palate is so accustomed to it, we can’t taste it unless it’s bigger, bloodier, more violent than the last. Because we’re so used to it, we don’t see it.

Why am I writing this blog post? Because comments.

But realism, a few responders (notably mostly male at the beginning of the attack, sorry I mean conversation) cry. Stop trying to dictate my art, others cry, how dare you make me think that what I do may have real world consequences. But genre expectations; but Adam, you stupid; but only white Westerners live in a world without daily violence (and those Other People don’t feel it the way we do anyway); but diversity (Adam rightly points out that he’s asking for more diversity in fantasy because he loves it, not less); but promotion=evil, he just wants to sell books (I’d point out this book isn’t finished yet, and Adam is musing out loud about what it means to write a book without violence); but numbers! are you sure what you’re saying is true?

It all wearingly reminds me of last summer’s conversation about grim dark. Some of us want less violence; some want to examine the consequences of the mainly gendered violence in the media we consume; some of us love the anti-hero and tragedy, and some people knee-jerk and shout censorship! cooties! you (women, pacifists, communists, un-Americans) just don’t understand and are trying to take over the world anyway!


Since so many said it better than I can, just think about it with violence, general, instead of grimdark, specific:

Elizabeth Bear, I Love a Good Tragedy As Much as the Next Guy

If every woman’s going to be raped, if every hero is going to turn out to be a pedophile or a coward, if every halfway honorable man is going to be impaled, if every picturesque little town is going to be burned to the ashes… Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies is just as lazy a narrative as the one where all challenges are resolved by a handy Deus ex machina. And possibly a little more juvenile.

Foz Meadows, On Grittiness and Grimdark

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many SFF readers – especially those who are female, POC and/or LGBTQ – are going to object to your definition of reality, not just as you’ve elected to apply it in an SFFnal context, but as an effective commentary on them, personally: because when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.

Liz Bourke with some facts about violence against men in war (think about why it’s so disturbing to talk about this kind of violence, but we accept depictions of the same kinds of violence against women without a blink—even me sometimes. We all swim in the cultural soup). Realism, Male Rape and Epic Fantasy

Kate Elliott reflects on consensual sex in fantasy in What is Your Consensual Sex & Love Doing in My Epic Fantasy?

Sophia McDougall on rape as wallpaper in The Rape of James Bond (The google results while I was looking for that were horrific)

I’ll leave you with Marie Brennan to end. Welcome to the Desert of the Real

I repeat: there’s nothing wrong with writing about violence (even bloody, horrific violence), sex (even nonconsensual sex, which is to say rape), or moral greyness. All of those things are real. But they are not the whole picture. Reality is not a desert in which we stagger from one tiny oasis to the next, barely sucking down enough muddy, stagnant water to stay alive. If you’re writing about the desert, ask yourself why, and where you’re going in it, and whether you’re following that path because it will take you somewhere useful, or just because everyone else has gone that way.

And finally, various people:

It’s fantasy! Why would you want to do the same old thing and keep the same old rules when you could make up anything? Isn’t that the point?

2 thoughts on “It Must Be That Time of Year Again: A Response to Has Fantasy Forgotten the Consequences of Violence?

  1. robakers says:

    Great post. I have been considering this for a long time and am working hard to incorporate into my work. I have redone the first draft, removing most of the violence and replacing it with alternate storylines.

    There will be two killings in the novel. One is the MC acting out of grief and anger. The other will be accidental. Both times, the other characters react negatively to the killings because their goal is to never take lives, but to save lives.

    This brings up a issue that I had to work out. The good guys disrupt a secret pedophile ring in Thailand and capture several men. What was I going to do with them? Finally, it was decided that I would release them into the jungle and I allow the jungle to decide their fate. When they walk into the jungle, I will not talk about them again. It is up to the reader to determine how they disappeared.

  2. shamusbishop says:

    I think fantasy, and speculative fiction in general, is much more interesting to read when it deals with the consequences of violence, both psychologically and socially. Without exploring that aspect of the character’s experience, fiction becomes catoonish and boring. I don’t want to read about some robotic killing machine who only experiences angst over the manic pixie dreamgirl who won’t return his affections.

    I wrote a scene recently in my own fantasy novel in which a 10-year-old thief kills a man. He’s never killed someone before. He kills in order to save a friend. Even though he had a good reason for killing, he has an extreme reaction afterward. He vomits twice, He feels hollowed out. And his character changes. It’s the formative moment of his life and it drives the rest of his character arc, to some extent.

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