September 30, 2011

Violence in Christian Fiction

To sort of follow up the "Arming Your Hero" series, I wanted to write a post about violence in Christian fiction. In the speculative genres, particularly fantasy, it is basically assumed that stories will contain violence, be it a sword fight, a fazer battle, storming a castle, or a good old-fashioned fist fight.
But as Christians, what should our approach to violence in fiction be? Readers, how much is too much? At what point should we put the book down? Writers, how should we handle violence when it comes up in our own stories?

The first real question is: When is violence biblically justified?
If you discuss this with enough people, it's only a matter of time until 'Thou shalt not kill' comes up. This is a relatively easy issue to handle with a quick explanation of the King James version's word choice. What they translated as 'kill' actually means 'murder' in the original Hebrew text.
If you haven't done it already, I would encourage you to study Old Testament law (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and familiarize yourself with what it says about violence and killing.
Going into specific detail on the Bible's commands and accounts that revolve around violence would require a series of posts all its own, so for time's sake I'm going to base this post on the assumption that you all have at least a basic understanding of biblically justified killing and violence and are okay with the idea of violence in the real world as well as in fiction. (If this is not the case, leave a comment or email me with any questions you have.)

This brings us into the real issue I wanted to discuss in this post: What should a Christian writer's or reader's approach be to violence in fiction?
It is extremely important to understand that violence is very, very ugly. Over the last several decades books and movies have glamorized it into something exciting, dramatic, even artistic. You know the routine: the hero slays the dozen enemy warriors surrounding him while managing to sustain only superficial and cool-looking injuries himself, leaps onto his horse, swings the girl into the saddle behind him, rides to the arch-villain's stronghold, engages said villain in a deadly, several-minutes-long battle, slays arch-villain (sustaining another glamorous injury or two), kisses the girl, makes some profoundly witty remark, and the end credits roll. Hurrah.
Only that's not even close to what violence is really like. Real-life violence is unbelievably fast, bloody, terrifying, and horrific. A man doesn't just kill his attacker and carry on unscathed; even a perfectly justified killing has serious psychological effects on a person. A man who has been run through with a sword doesn't just cringe and crumple to the ground. Even a fight that doesn't end with a fatality often results in broken noses, missing teeth, black eyes, and more.
More recent titles in movies and literature have actually begun to show violence more realistically, but I don't see that trend as any better than the last one. Glamorized violence lulls people into a false perception of violence; realistic violence displayed as 'entertainment' inoculates people against the horror of what violence really is.
So as writers, we are faced with the task of finding a very delicate balance somewhere in the midst of all this. Where in the world do we start?
First of all, I want to make it clear that I don't have a problem with a fun, light-hearted work of fiction portraying violence in a somewhat goofy way (e.g. The dashing and witty hero makes an incredibly clever remark and all the oafish bad guys stand there dumbfounded while he renders them unconscious with a rolling pin.). With a book or movie of that nature, people understand that it's not supposed to be serious or realistic; it's fun and entertaining for the sole purpose of being fun and entertaining, and I have no problem at all with that as long as it's done in a clean and tasteful way.
But when you get into the heavier fiction, fiction intended to be taken seriously, violence becomes a much more complicated issue.
We don't want to commit the error of glamorizing violence. At the same time, though, we don't want to carry realism too far. A normal person does not enjoy seeing or reading about extremely realistic or gory violence, and we don't want to ruin their enjoyment of a story with our quest to achieve literary realism. (Besides which, a normal person probably isn't going to enjoy writing about excessively realistic violence, either.)
So where do we draw the line? How much realism is too much?
Honestly, I don't have a concrete answer or a step-by-step formula for dealing with violence in fiction. No two fights or battles are alike, and the scenarios surrounding them aren't alike either. Readers and writers have to use their own judgment in making decisions on what to read and what to write and where lines should be drawn.
In my own writing there are a lot of battles as well as fights on a smaller scale. My standard approach is to tell what happened ("He fell to the floor with a knife in his chest...", "blood poured from a cut on his face...", etc.) and leave it at that. If a character dies a violent death, I say enough to let the reader know what happens, but I do it in a relatively vague way that allows them to understand what's going on without having to read (and thereby 'see') all the gruesome and gory details. They can choose to fill in more detail (or not) with their own imagination. The way I see it, this allows me to tell the story without having to write bloody and unpleasant descriptions, as well as allowing the reader to read the story without having to read more detail than they want to.
One thing I make it a point to keep in mind when writing violent scenes is that violence is not something to be taken lightly. Ever. I'm not talking about a goofy bop on the head or a shove off the dock and into the pond; I'm talking about serious fiction. With fiction we do have some leeway to work with (simply because it is fiction and people don't read fiction expecting everything to be realistic), but as Christian writers it is still something we need to take seriously and consider carefully.
Society's persistently flippant view and portrayal of violence has greatly influenced individuals' perspectives of it--even Christians' perspectives. But maybe, if a generation of Christian writers would commit to portraying violence in a godly way--as something very serious that can't be taken lightly--we could begin to open their eyes and change those perspectives.

I think it's worth a try.


  1. Great post, Mary! I agree that we can't come up with a formula for how to handle violence, and the Bible is a good place to look for guidance. Some of the situations recounted are incredibly violent (like the Levite chopping up his concubine), but it's never without purpose and never glorifies the violence. In the case of the Levite, it illustrated how far Israel had fallen. Yes, there was some detail, but it didn't describe exactly what happened as he dismembered her. So we get the horror of the situation without the gory details, if that makes sense.

    I know when writing novels we have the "show don't tell" mantra, but sometimes when it comes to gruesome situations less is more. In my current WIP, I deal with some pretty violent situations (tends to come with the territory for fantasy, I think), and I'm still calculating the right balance for each scene. Like you, I don't take violence lightly and I don't want to immerse readers knee-deep in blood and gore.

  2. Did you ever see the Speculative Faith discussion of violence?

  3. Very good and thoughtful! I've often thought about this, myself. Basically, I try to stick to small descriptions. Actually, describing pain, instead of the wound itself, is an effective way of getting a reader to sympathize with a character, I think. One of the problems I had with the Auralia's Thread series was the extreme violence with which he described things. The effect was that I came away from the books feeling like it was an extremely dark and unpleasant world, one which I would not like to visit in the least. In the last book, a young boy disobeys and leaves the safety of the place he is in, and is impaled. I felt like I was being hit over the head with violence, like the author was saying, "This is a violent world! Do you get it yet? Do you get it?"
    And, coupled with an extremely unsatisfying ending, the series was one that I think of with increasing distaste.
    I think that C. S. Lewis and Tolkien had very good approaches to violence by not describing it very much.
    Death itself should not be shown delicately and seriously, I think. Way too many times, one of the supporting characters will give a heroic speech with literally his last breath, and he and the hero will exchange a little humorous one liner, then the character will die.
    This isn't at all realistic or even right (except for a parody or comedy, of course). The hero, if he has any heart at all, is going to see that his friend is suffering, and is more likely going to be convulsed with sobs as he watches the life drain away. The dying man is going to be in too much pain to make funny remarks or dramatic speeches.
    So, yeah, a lot goes into making death and violence tow the line between too dark, and too light. Maybe I'll write my own blog post on it sometime :D

  4. @ Sarah - Thank you. I think you're right, violence just seems to come with the turf in fantasy. (And the story of the Levite and his concubine has always freaked me out, by the way.)
    @ Galadriel - I must have missed that one.
    @ Laura - I like your idea of describing the pain instead of the actual wound. And I agree, the whole dying speech thing has been... well, beaten to death, for lack of a better term. : )
    I say go for it writing a post of your own on this topic. I don't pretend to have it all figured out, so I'm all for additional thoughts and discussion.

  5. It's addressed here: but I'm sure other posts address it too

  6. When we read the Holy Bible we read about a fallen world full of violence. If God wrote violence into the bible, why would Christians need to exclude violence from their own writings? The point of Christian fiction is not to exclude every thing unpleasant, rather the point of Christian fiction is to glorify Jesus Christ. If at the end of the book it hasn't done that than it's not "Christian" fiction.

  7. Well said, Gary. Thanks so much for stopping by the Lair and sharing your thoughts!


What are your thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear your comments, questions, or ideas, even if you don't agree with me. Please be aware that I reserve the right to delete comments that are uncivil or vulgar, however.