Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 13: Violence
Key Points: “Violence is one of the ultimate shaping forces of human culture and to not write about it is dishonest.” But you need to include consequences. Wolves and sheepdogs both have teeth. And some doctors laugh when they give you shots.
[Howard] 15 minutes long
[Brandon] because you’re in a hurry
[Dan] and we want to kill you
[Brandon] Violence. We need to do a podcast on this. I think it’s important. I think we want to talk about it. And you know, what we’re really good…
[Howard] We need to do a podcast on writing violence.
[Dan] Let’s be clear on this.
[Brandon] Now we all… all three of us include what I would think is a surprising level of violence to some people who read our works. I know I’ve received e-mails sometimes from people who say, “Wow, I was a little bit surprised, a little bit shocked.” I’m not writing books to just surprise and shock people, but there are things that I include which I…
[Dan] I am.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah, you are. You’re writing about a teenage serial killer. You write, Howard, about a group of mercenary thugs.
[Howard] Paid to hurt people and break things.
[Brandon] So, why violence? Why do you use violence in your stories? Howard?
[Howard] Violence is one of the ultimate shaping forces of human culture and to not write about it is dishonest. To write about it in such a way that it’s funny is potentially dangerous. And so I’m walking this weird moral line that… I love this game. It’s a good time.
[Dan] You know, I find myself thinking about the weird moral lines as well when I use violence in my books, because one of the reasons I think people have said my books are too violent is because… or have a lot of violence in them… is because I try to portray it as realistically as I can. I don’t want this to be a slasher horror, I would like it to actually deal with the consequences of hitting someone in the face. And that is not something that happens a lot. There’s usually not a lot of consequences to violence in movies and…
[Brandon] in genre fiction.
[Dan] genre fiction. It’s very disturbing to some people to see those consequences.
[Brandon] The scene that sometimes bothers people in mine — it’s also in Mistborn 2, we talked about this book last week — but there’s a scene where one of the characters assaults a fortified position of the opposing army and goes to town on them.
[Howard] Yeah, that was a great scene.
[Brandon] She has been kind of under the influence of someone else who is more aggressive and more violent and has convinced her that this is the only way to protect those whom she loves and so she just lets loose.
[Howard] And her taking that path shaped her. I don’t think you could have written that book without that scene.
[Brandon] I’ll tell you where the scene came from. This scene came from watching the Matrix and being bothered by the fact that there were no consequences. The best scene in that movie is a scene where the heroes are mowing down innocent guards — just guys who are just there doing their jobs — the good guys are getting mowed down by these anarchists who are the protagonists — but just a huge killing spree and it’s beautiful. The reason that scene bothered me so much was because of the beauty of it and the lack of consequences.
[Howard] It was beautiful and ultimately inconsequential. Those characters went through that and remained completely unchanged.
[Brandon] Unchanged. And they… there are lots of arguments for… they didn’t even need to go that direction. It was there in the movie simply to show the good guys being bad… and doing… bad in the bad being cool sense…
[Howard] Bad A…
[Brandon] Being [garbled awesome?] And killing lots of people. And that scene really bothered me. Particularly because of the effect it had on me. That I wanted to watch that scene over and over again. That’s what bothered me.
[Howard] That bothers me.
[Brandon] Well, because of the beauty of the choreography. And so I wanted to put a scene in one of my books where I said, “No, this isn’t what happens.” If you go through with something like this… if you were a programmer up until a few days ago, and you went and did something like this, you would not have the ramifications — the lack of them that’s portrayed in the movie. You were talking about this, Dan?
[Dan] One of the books… one of the horror books that I have read recently and loved thoroughly was Doppelganger, and I loved the…
[Brandon] There are two books named Doppelganger, do you remember the…
[Dan] No, I can’t remember the title.
[Brandon] the author?
[Dan] It’s about a high school kid… Yeah, I can’t remember the author. Anyway, it’s a wonderful book about what it’s like to be a monster in our society and it deals with a lot of different themes like we talked about last week, but there’s a part at the end… This monster ends up in a family with an abusive father and he solves this problem by beating up the father and that just drove me crazy. Exactly like you’re talking about. Because you can’t solve violence with violence. It does not work. It has never worked. And it worked in this book and that bothered me. Thinking about that became my entire second book of my trilogy — was let’s deal with the consequences of trying to solve violence with violence. Let’s see what it will do to you when you go down that road. That’s where the whole second book came from.
[Brandon] So is there a limit? Where do you draw your line? How do you know, Howard, when you’ve gone too far? Or do you ever worry about it?
[Howard] No, I definitely worry about it. Because I’m trying… on the one hand, I’m trying not to unnecessarily glorify violence, on the other hand, I’m trying to depict what I like to refer to as mayhem — when Schlock fires his plasma cannon and blows stuff up. The fans love to read that, and I love to draw it.
[Brandon] It’s the best part of the comic.
[Howard] It’s some of the best parts of the story. And I need to find ways as I’m writing this to either justify it as a righteous kill or just say no, this wasn’t clean, and there are going to be consequences that are problematic. This latest book — we talked about theme last week — and the Schlock Mercenary book that I’m working on right now kind of has that as a theme that I haven’t broached before in the comic, which is that sometimes violence is going to have consequences — even for a group of professionals who everybody accepts that they do this, they are paid to do this, they are supposed to do this. But they are going to get sued, and there are civilian casualties, and there are moral quandaries.
[Brandon] We all seem to be on the same wavelength with this. Let’s go ahead and give the other side…
[Howard] Manufacture a dissenting viewpoint?
[Brandon] In our theme one, we said we have to approach things from all viewpoints. Is there something to be said for the stormtrooper concept? I remember one of the old RPGs for Star Wars said to the GM, “Don’t make your characters think about the poor stormtrooper’s family. Don’t make them worry that they’re creating… This will ruin the enjoyment of the game. This is Star Wars, they are faceless bad guys.” Is there something to be said for that, or is that just a completely immoral position?
[Howard] It is a… let me back up just a little bit. I’ve done a bunch of research on violence. I’ve read On Killing by Lieut. Col. David Grossman. The Tribes article by… I can’t remember his name. Both of these talk about the fact that there is a small group of people in our population — between 2 1/2 and 5% — who can, with no compunction, take another human life. And these people end up either as sociopaths in prison or they end up protecting us. There are the wolves and the sheepdogs and most of the rest of us are sheep. And as sheep, we’re scared of anything that’s got teeth whether it’s a wolf or a sheepdog. We fear the police and we fear the gangsta…
[Brandon] Nice accent, by the way.
[Howard] Thank you. I’ve been working hard on that. It’s very, very telling in my writing because I try and play up the hero is some of the sheepdogs and I try and play up the villainy of the wolves, but I understand that those people come from the same mindset and it’s a very real mindset.
[Brandon] Okay. Was that a dissenting viewpoint?
[Howard] I don’t know.
[Brandon] It was interesting. Dan, do you have anything to say on this? Is there something to be said for this or…
[Dan] You know, I think there is. There’s definitely some people who are going to disagree, but I think that there is a place for a Jackie Chan ladder fight where he hits 17 people in a row with a ladder…
[Brandon] But he doesn’t kill anybody.
[Dan] Sure, he doesn’t kill anyone, but that isn’t going to sue the troubled mind of a mother whose child hit someone with a ladder. It’s very cool to watch that. It’s fun to play first-person shooters. It’s fun to watch the stormtroopers go down. Not because you want them to go down, but because they represent a triumph on the part of the hero.
[Howard] Well, when you talk about making them faceless, what you’re really talking about is de-humanizing or demonizing the enemy. And that’s something that we do in video games, it’s something that we do in fiction, it’s something that we do in real life.
[Brandon] The reason why Lucas changed from stormtroopers to robots… I think this may have bothered him… we can enjoy it much more when the lightsabers are chopping off the heads of robots that all look exactly identical and…
[Howard] Roger, roger.
[Brandon] But you’re right that we do this. You look at any civilization at war…
[Howard] You have to do it. Because when you are at war, your civilization, in many cases your home and family… if you’re fighting a war of defense just as much as if you’re playing conquistador… you have to demonize the enemy at least long enough for your soldiers to get their job done, and then — and this is the part that a good writer will focus on — then you have to let those soldiers come home and work through this because some of them are grieving over the lives that they have taken in the battlefield.
[Brandon] We never did let… get back to this. Dan, where is your line? How do you know when you’ve reached it? Have you ever reached at?
[Dan] I’m not entirely sure. I’ve noticed something very interesting is I have had people read my books. I’m almost done with three now, but people have read one and read two. Book one, in my opinion, is far bloodier, it’s far gorier, there is more violence in it. Book 2 creeps people out way more, they find it more disturbing, and they think of it as a more violent book even though it’s not. And it’s because it’s a different kind of violence, it’s portrayed in a different way.
[Brandon] How did you do that? The readers want to know how you did that.
[Dan] Book 2 focuses much more on planned, meticulous violence…
[Dan] It focuses on torture rather than spur of the moment, I have to kill this person because I will die otherwise.
[Howard] So there is suspense. It’s when the doctor… it’s the shot you weren’t expecting versus the shot where the doctor says now you’re going to feel a little pinch — actually this is going to hurt a lot…
[Dan] Specifically in my book two it’s the doctor saying, “I don’t have to give you this shot, but it makes me laugh when I do,” and then he gives it to you.
[Howard] All right.
[Brandon] Yeah. This is something we haven’t brought up yet, but I think is very important. There is… violence… if there is no violence in the book, it is hard to maintain tension. And suspense — suspense is the wrong word — but we use violence to raise the stakes in a lot of our stories.
[Howard] We use violence to raise the stakes because those are the kind of stakes we are dealing with. In a romance, you use breaking up, or adultery, or pregnancy to raise the stakes.
[Brandon] But everyone fears being hurt — well, almost everybody — fears being hurt and fears dying. These are things that are universal and they work very well as emotional motivation for characters. I haven’t answered my own question, so perhaps I should. Have I hit the line? I think I probably have, honestly, with the Mistborn books.
[Howard] In that scene in book 2?
[Brandon] In that scene in book 2. I would say I’ve hit the line. Maybe I’ll change my mind later on.
[Howard] That felt like a line in terms of volume. In terms of glorifying it, the moment where she does the anime super jump flip the sword…
[Brandon] I’m talking… the entire book two. We also have Eland beheading somebody in cold blood…
[Howard] That was book 3, wasn’t it?
[Brandon] That was book 2, playing executioner and judge on one of his old friends and beheading him.
[Howard] That’s right.
[Brandon] The book two did deal with violence as a theme. And I think that’s… overall, the whole book was a line for me. I backed off from it a little in book 3, then I wrote Warbreaker and backed off a whole lot. Will I approach these things again? Maybe I will. I probably will. Will I go further? I don’t know. It depends on what’s important for the book.
[Howard] That’s an interesting thought. Because I… the line that I try to draw away from is am I glorifying violence to the point that people are going to want to emulate this in the wrong sorts of ways? I love to see people join police forces, join the military, and want to serve and do good things. I don’t want to be responsible for breeding a generation of killers.
[Dan] Now Howard said something earlier when he talked about glorifying violence. Again I cannot place any of my quotes, but there’s a rather famous movie director who said that it’s impossible to make a war movie that does not glorify war because the mere act of looking at it makes it sensational to us. So I think in many ways regardless of how we use violence is always going to be that kind of eager visceral response in the reader.
[Howard] Which means you always have to come back from it and say and here is the consequence.
[Brandon] I think morality is more about consequences than it is about what you depict or choose not to depict. There are arguments to be made for the classic war movies where they aren’t showing us much violence, or the directors are stepping away from that, and it actually makes the films very strong. But, Saving Pvt. Ryan is a very strong film and I don’t think he could have achieved what he did without trying to depict it.
[Howard] And there are guys who were on Utah Beach who saw that film and asked themselves, “why would anybody depict that?” They have hard time watching it.
[Brandon] We’ll just bat this back at the readers. This is going to be a personal thing for you guys to decide. Whether you deal with consequences, how much violence you have in your books. I think it’s something you need to think about, because one thing I think a lot of readers don’t understand… writers don’t understand is once you get published, that’s locked in stone, and that represents you. And people will call you on it. And on that downer of a note, writing prompt. Howard, violence is your specialty. Give us a writing prompt.
[Howard] Write… have some fun in the worst possible way. Write an extremely violent sequence that really glorifies the violence, and then write the consequences. Moralize it afterwards and force yourself to walk that path.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses.
[Howard] We are so, so sorry.
[Brandon] Please don’t shoot us.
[Dan] Or anything else.
[Brandon] Actually, please don’t shoot anyone else and blame us. Blame Howard. It’s okay to blame Howard, he thinks that’s funny.
[Howard] No, no. We’re at 16 minutes and 30 seconds.
[Dan] Blame Gordo. We all blame Gordo for everything.
[Howard] Stop talking.
[Unidentified child] You’ve been listening to Writing Excuses and it is very safe for kids.