Violence and Character Development

If you write fiction chances are you’re going have to write a scene involving violence. Even if you’re not writing thrillers or action stories chances are your characters will be faced with physical conflict, even if that conflict is just a simple shoving match or a slap in the face. Violent confrontations are a staple of fiction. The reason for this is simple; violence is part of real-life human existence. Even in our supposedly civilized culture, violence is always waiting just beneath the surface. The fact is we live in a violent world.

For authors the portrayal of violence can be a tricky thing. How descriptive and graphic should an author be when portraying violent encounters? How does doing violence to others affect your character emotionally and psychologically? How much violence is justified in a given situation? Like all actions, violent actions produce reactions. As authors we have to depict the consequences of our characters violent actions no matter how justified those actions may have been.

Many, if not most authors have never experience a serious violent encounter. Many, if not most have never been in a serious shoving match. They have never experience being punched in the face or thrown onto concrete by someone who intended to do them harm. Civilization has insulated them from violence to a large extent. They therefore have no true understanding of violence or its lingering after effects. This insulation results in authors reducing the violence taking place in their stories to a mere plot device. It loses its emotional visceral impact, and therefore its storytelling value.

In fiction the hero and villain of a given piece often exchanged blows for several minutes in ‘book time’. The hero may be struck in the face and head several times and absorbs several body-blows. Yet, he triumphs and often goes on fighting and absorbs even more damage with only the occasional wince of recognition to the pain caused by his injuries.  Unless an author is writing a character that supernatural powers, this underestimation of the damaged caused in such an encounter is unrealistic and can even make a heroic character seem less heroic. Even if the character is somehow more than human (in a science fiction or fantasy setting perhaps) he is likely going to receive substantial injury if facing a worthy opponent.

When writing combat scenes an author must consider what happens when two human being contend with each other and are committed to doing serious harm. They intent to maim, cripple or kill, and the techniques they use will be brutal and devastating.  Skilled fighters know where and how to strike, squeeze or twist a human body to cause maximum damage and they will exploit that knowledge ruthlessly. They will cause parts of their opponent’s body to not function properly. They will end they fight as quickly as possible and they will be savage and brutal.

A knee with a smashed Patella Bone simply will not work as it usually does; no matter how tough a person is. Someone who has just been repeatedly kicked in the ribs will not be able to breathe normally. A person who has been slashed deeply across the belly with a knife will not be able to move as he normally does because the abdominal muscles have been severed and his blood pressure is plummeting.  The pain alone form such wounds would likely incapacitate most people. A great many novelists ignore the effects battle-wounds at the cost of dramatic tension.

I suggest authors think about the injuries that they have experienced in their life when writing violent scenes. Remember the broken arm you had after you fell down the stairs as a child and ask yourself  how much fighting you could have done minutes after receiving that injury.  Think about that black eye your cousin gave you by accident while you were roughhousing and imagine a fully grown person deliberately driving a fist into your eye. The drama comes from the protagonist fighting through the pain and overcoming crippling injury. No drama or excitement comes from ignoring pain and injury but the way your characters deal with pain and disabling injury will define them in your reader’s eyes.

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