Violence And Storytelling

2015 Artwork Violence in fiction article sketch

Although this is an article about writing, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer and/or video games for a while – there’s a reason for this and I’m not just rambling about a manufactured “shock value” videogame controversy from a couple of months ago just for the sake of it. Honest.

Anyway, quite a while back, I saw a trailer for a game which will probably get banned in the UK if it is ever released.

It’s a game called “Hatred” and the trailer for it can be seen near the beginning of this episode of “Nerd Alert” [WARNING: Contains graphic, disturbing and realistic violent imagery].

From the trailer, “Hatred” looks like it’s a game where you play as a thoroughly misanthropic, and completely nameless, guy who does nothing but go on a cold-blooded killing spree in a town somewhere.

But, why am I talking about a trailer for a game that I’ve never played? Well, it’s because it also raises a lot of interesting questions about appropriate ways of presenting violence in fiction.

Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that I’m anti-censorship and I have nothing against depictions of violence in prose fiction, film, television, comics, computer games or any other entertainment medium. So, this won’t be a Mary Whitehouse/Jack Thompson/ Anita Sarkeesian -style moral lecture about how “evil” modern media is.

I mean, I used to avidly read gruesome Splatterpunk novels when I was a teenager, “Doom II” is still my favourite computer game and I absolutely love “Game Of Thrones” too. So, I’d be a massive hypocrite if I criticised violent media for being violent.

Violence in fiction isn’t an inherently bad thing – in fact, it’s often an essential element of most types of stories. Whilst you can write completely non-violent fiction, it significantly limits your options and it means that you pretty much can’t write anything in the detective, thriller, historical fiction or horror genres. And, yes, these are some of my favourite genres.

However whilst fictional violence isn’t an inherently bad thing, how it is depicted and presented is an entirely different and much more complicated subject.

I’d argue that it’s generally seen as acceptable to present even the most extreme acts of violence in fiction provided that they occur within a context that most readers will see as both understandable and integral to the story. And that violent scenes in fiction are presented in a way that fits into your readers’ own personal moral frameworks.

For example, it’s generally accepted that it is ok to show the protagonist of your story using violence in self-defence or in order to prevent greater acts of violence.

In fact, most violent computer games and action movies are based around this exact premise – the main character has to fight against dangerous terrorists, monsters, aliens, demons, nazis, criminals etc.. who want to kill both the main character and everyone else.

This, incidentally, is one reason why the trailer for “Hatred” is so disturbing, since most of the characters who are attacked in it are completely defenceless and do not threaten the main character (or anyone else) in any way.

Likewise, you can show evil people doing horrific things – as long as this is both an important part of the plot of the story and that their actions are presented as horrifying, evil, darkly comedic, shocking and/or morally dubious in some way.

This doesn’t mean that you have to deliver a long moral lecture to your readers or even include any kind of “poetic justice” in your story, it just means that have to present extreme acts of violence in a way that doesn’t make them seem “good”, “cool” and/or “glamourous”.

This isn’t because, like some people will claim, glamourous depictions of horrific violence will “deprave and corrupt” your audience. Quite the opposite in fact.

Your readers are ordinary people who, like everyone, have a fairly strong sense of right and wrong. So, when something that they quite rightly see as abhorrent is presented in a “cool” or “glamourous” way, then it is going to disturb and repulse them.

In fact, it’ll probably make them stop reading out of sheer disgust or – at the very least – it’ll lower their opinion of the story. I mean, a great example of this is Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho”. It’s a darkly comedic novel set in 1980s America and the narrator is a rich businessman called Patrick Bateman who is also a deranged and sadistic serial killer.

I read this book when I was fourteen, because I’d heard that it was “controversial”.

At the time, all of the clever social satire and twisted humour in it went completely over my head and I just saw nothing but creepy narration and horrific acts of violence that even made a die-hard horror fan like myself cringe with disgust.

And, to give you some context, I’d gleefully read and enjoyed Shaun Hutson’s “Assassin” about a year earlier (and this is a horror novel that features a couple of scenes that are too disgusting to even summarise here – but they are, as you would expect, presented in a way which makes them seem horrific and evil).

Yes, I finished reading “American Psycho” out of sheer bloody-mindedness, but it didn’t make me think that violence was “ok” or anything like that. In fact, I still consider it to be one of the most disturbing books that I’ve ever read and not one that I ever want to re-read. Even more than a decade later.

And this is also why I think that, in purely dramatic terms, the “Hatred” game that I mentioned earlier depicts violence in an absolutely terrible way. I don’t think that this game should be banned, but at the same time, I don’t think that it’s going to sell very well either.

This is because, from the trailer at least, it presents cold-blooded murder in a very stylised and “cool” way. And this will, quite rightly, put most gamers off of buying or playing it because – like everyone else- we are essentially moral people.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂