Unlike my two previous posts, almost no one, it seems, objects to violence in fiction. We have come to expect it, in fact.
Is that a good thing?
The answer depends almost entirely on what effect you as a writer are trying to achieve. Violence in fiction, especially when graphically portrayed, unsettles the reader. If one is writing detective or horror fiction, this is expected. It helps to create the atmosphere necessary for the full enjoyment of the experience.
Something that one doesn’t expect when reading either of these genres is to connect on anything but an intellectual level with the characters. Is this by design? Do the authors of such works purposely avoid showing the human side of their characters?
They may do so, but only to the extent that they know the psychological impact of graphic violence depicted in their works.
We react to violence in life in one of two ways, we flee or we combat it. If the victim of violence is someone other than ourselves, our instinct is to help. That means, intervening to stop it or offering succor. In either case, our emotional reaction to this violence is at least delayed. We feel nothing.
This is the normal psychological reaction to this type of event. We cannot do what we must do to help if we feel significant empathy for the victim. Such a reaction would hamstring us and we would be less than useful.
Violence in Fiction Requires a Light Touch
This is the net effect of violence in fiction: an emotional distancing of the reader from all those involved in the violence; be they victims, perpetrators or witnesses.
If or when you decide that something nasty is going to happen to one of your characters, ask yourself if it’s really a good idea. If you’ve spent the last fifty thousand words trying to get the reader to bond with this character, you may destroy all that effort.
Violence can help the reader bond with a character if it happens early enough in the story. A victim of sexual assault in the first chapter of a novel, for example, may become a much loved person as they struggle to recover and eventually triumph over their trauma.
Violence is like a potent spice. Use it carefully and sparingly for best effect. You don’t want to send anyone running into the street with their hair on fire because you made the dish too spicy!