Violence in Fantasy

If we ignore juvenilia (and we should, I really think we should), I was a crime writer first, before I slipped all unmeaning into more speculative fiction. In those days, in the UK at least, crime or mystery writing divided pretty much into cozies and hardboiled; the serial-killer thriller was something new over here. So much so that publishers and bookstores didn’t really know what to do with the books I was writing, which is how they ended up on the horror shelves, which is how I made that unintended step aside into spec fic – but that’s a whole other story. Today, I want to write about violence.

“Chaz, why do you want to write about violence?” has been a question all through my career, but I never really understood it. Actually what I want to write about is people, and what interests me most is people in crisis. I’m hardly the first. The great themes of literature are love and death; “sex and violence” is a pejorative tabloid description of the same impulse, to examine what lies downriver from the drives of passion and need and betrayal. (I have been heard to say that all fiction is about betrayal, but that again is another conversation.)

From childhood bullying to global war, violence pervades the human story; from whodunits to pangalactic empire-building, violence pervades the stories we tell each other. And in the thirty-odd years I’ve been publishing, in every genre, those stories have certainly grown more graphic. Some writers want to treat more realistically with violence, some want to be more extreme; paradoxically, both tendencies lead to the same result, more gore on the page. Sometimes I feel as though I drag this behind me (along with the whole Gay Thing, which again, another post, ’scuse me…) from genre to genre: it was a live issue when I was writing crime fifteen years ago, and it’s a live issue in fantasy today. I don’t actually claim to be responsible, but to be sure I participate. I may even be bleeding-edge. Someone who reads even more genre fiction than I do has started to keep a tally of how many recent fantasy novels feature torture, and my own will certainly be on that list.

Point is, though, it matters. Fiction, any fiction stands as a mirror to our own lives, our own times. Fantasy can’t afford to be written down – or written off – as exclusively a cozy genre, when the world is far from cozy, when torture and war and personal cruelty are the stuff of nightly news bulletins. Of course there will always be those who want or need escapism or consolation (my mother is still waiting for me to write a book she can actually read), and they will always be catered for, in new books as well as classics; we don’t need hard-edged fantasy instead, we need it in addition. And have it, these days, and I do believe the genre is stronger for it.

Chaz Brenchley

Chaz Brenchley’s bookshelf at BVC


About Chaz Brenchley

Chaz Brenchley has been making a living as a writer since the age of eighteen. He is the author of nine thrillers and several fantasy series, under the names of Daniel Fox and Ben Macallan as well as his own. Chaz has recently married and moved from Newcastle to California, with two squabbling cats and a famous teddy bear. You can find his work in the BVC Ebookstore.


Violence in Fantasy — 11 Comments

  1. ‘The great themes of literature are love and death; “sex and violence” is a pejorative tabloid description of the same impulse, to examine what lies downriver from the drives of passion and need and betrayal.’

    Great line!

    I am recalling the almost microscopic vividness of the physical cruelty in ‘Dragon In Chains’ and thinking how, in some fantasy I have read, the violence is glossy and sweet; not so in the Daniel Fox books.

    Thanks for the post, and looking forward to reading more from you.

  2. The trend is part and parcel of the explosion in information. Time was, you would only ever get news of people in your neighborhood, or town, or state, or country. It would be buffered by time and distance, the time it took for word of that terrible Lizzie Borden incident to trickle out via newspaper and gossip. And since the per-capita rate of atrocities is not large, you might hear of one only once or twice in your lifetime.

    Nowadays you can hop on line and read about crime worldwide.

  3. Actually, the trend has been toward more violence without much more sex. Most American readers still equate sex with porn and any “romance” automatically devalues the book as “women’s stuff” (aka girl cooties) whereas, of course, violence is deemed inherently manly — especially for people denied their “natural” right to bear and fire arms at will, like them good ol’ days.

    Furthermore, endless buckets of gore win a work a pallid PG-13 or so rating, while the sight of a nipple instantly ratchets it to an NC-17, and that of a penis usually earns it an X.

    My observation is that SF/F writers resort to graphic torture scenes when they want to capture their readers’ attention through shock, instead of using such boring old-fashioned staples like plot and characters. Gore routinely shows up in the stories of well-known authors who are retreading either because their agent/publisher wants more or the same or because they’ve run out of ideas.

  4. Athena: not just SF/F writers. A recent read of some thrillers made me wonder if the old saw “when you get stuck, throw in an explosion or a fist fight” has altered to “throw in a serial killer torturing young women to death” because geez, there’s a lot of it out there. And it all reads kinda the same.

  5. Sherwood, Brenda — I wrote an article that discusses this issue in its second half. Bottom line: torture is increasingly used to shock the reader and/or to indicate the author’s “edgy sophistication”. For those of us who dipped even a toe into torture (by living in dictatorships, war zones, etc), this borders on the obscene.

    Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears

  6. I agree with you Chaz, and as a lifelong fantasy reader, I think the genre is benefiting from this new wave of violence. It helps to shed the image of fantasy being solely “for children”, which is an attitude I often encounter when I venture outside the genre safety bubble. It’s hard enough to believe in a world full of magic and swords, but nigh impossible to believe that a protagonist and his band of good fellows could maneuver through that world unscathed. It’s stupid. You wave around a sword; someone should get cut.

    OT, I really think Book View Cafe is a great group blog. I gave it an award at my own group blog. It can be picked up here

  7. Myths and folktales were not for children, if you’ve heard them unexpurgated. Certainly, their intended audience was not restricted to children. People did not separate by age when they gathered around bards — the idea of literature for children (and novels with excised pages for unmarried women) is a peculiar invention of the Victorian era.

    Equation of violence with “adult” writing is also peculiar, considering children’s default tendencies before they are socialized to conform to group norms. If anything, most violence bespeaks leftover adolescence. Recall Golding’s Lord of the Flies?

    Finally, well-written violence is a staple in Anglophone fantasy ever since I started reading it, more than thirty years ago. As one example, it’s present in all of Le Guin’s Earthsea novels and stories. But it’s deft, judicious, integral, it doesn’t shout and wave — which makes it far more effective. So this is not a new invention. Ratcheting gratuitous gore is a different story.

  8. I come at this issue from the perspective of westerns, which have chiefly been about the use of violence to restore order in an often lawless imagined world. Given the violence and lawlessness of the actual world, the western has been a way to deal with that subject, subduing fears we have about it while indulging a curiosity about it. Violence in books and movies also helps us safely explore our own violent passions – our suppressed homicidal impulses and desires to do harm to others.

    You can also get off on violence, and that’s where much of the audience seems to be now. Instead of taming the inner beast, it feeds it. I’m not too crazy about that. In the older westerns I watch, character and relationships are part of the picture, and brutal violence or the threat of it is a troubling presence. That’s seldom the case anymore. Spectacular violence dominates. Watch both old and new versions of “3:10 to Yuma” and you see what I mean.

    Given the prevalence of torture in the world, its presence in fiction and films makes me queasy. Making it a form of entertainment may have a therapeutic side for an audience living in a violent world (as ours increasingly seems to be), but I also worry that it simply desensitizes us. I’d be happy to see this discussion continue.

  9. Ron, you made a very important, valid distinction — which I alluded to by briefly by mentioning integral versus gratuitous violence. A lot of today’s entertainment is geared towards arousing the fight-or-flight reflex. Gratuitous gore, especially in visual media, is a way to both inflame and mesmerize crowds, as an alternative to critical, rational thinking (think of Riefenstahl’s artful burnishing of Nazi thuggery and you can see the connection). If you’re interested, I wrote on this topic from the respective viewpoints of the audience and of the artist:

    Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

    The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art