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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Things to Consider on Violence in Literature

Picture Credit: http://www.consumerinstinct.com/consumer-behavior/
Violence in literature. It's a touchy topic because people have different standards and very real concerns.

In this posting I'm going to discuss things to consider in determining the appropriate amount and type of violence for your book.

Before I dive into that, though, let me first say what this is NOT. I am not going to dictate how much violence belongs in literature. I believe that is a matter of opinion. I'm only trying to give tips on evaluating how much you deem appropriate.

Second, before anyone announces that no violence should be found in literature, stop to consider that most conflicts and all threats constitute some level of violence. You do not have to like gore, horror, or torture to acknowledge violence in literature.

What Needs to be Accomplished?

Before you start writing violence for the sake of violence, ask yourself why you are using it. Violence in literature can accomplish important tasks, but you should be aware of what you want it to accomplish. 

Some of the tasks violence can accomplish are:
  • Therapeutic connection with the reader- some books are written with the intention of helping victims of violence find healing 
  • Raising the stakes- give the character an increased level of problems to deal with
  • Push the characters- in this way readers find out just how far a character is willing to go; many times the character also learns this about himself or herself at the same time as the reader
  • Grow the characters- violence forces change or growth much faster than it will happen in a safe setting
  • Reach raw emotion- violence will bring forward emotions in their raw state; it is one thing for a character to love his child and it's another to show a scene where his child gets hit by a car; violence also reaches the emotions of the readers

How Far Should You Go?

The more aware you are of why you are using violence, the better you will be able to judge how far it is appropriate for you to go. For example, let's look at the therapeutic connection need. If you are writing a book to reach out to rape victims, then you will need to introduce rape. Or we can look at the need to push characters to show how far they are willing to go. If a threat is enough to turn your characters around, then stop at the threat, but if you are trying to show that they are able to risk their lives then you should make the violence great enough to portray that.

As a basic rule, if a paper cut will fill your need for violence in a scene, then don't introduce a hit man. If you are now frustrated with me because you want a hit man, go back to the question of why. A hit man isn't necessarily wrong, but he should fill a need in your story. If you find that the violence in a part of your book is a purposeless filler because you didn't know what else to put there, you may want to reconsider. As with any plot device, violence should give the reader information and develop characters in addition to furthering the plot.

Consider the Audience

In every part of writing you should consider your audience. Who will want to buy your book? Why? What are their expectations?

Violence can change greatly depending on how descriptive you get. The level of description you choose to use should be based on what you believe to be right and what you believe to be acceptable for your audience. Just as you would not market the "Saw" movies to pre-school aged children, you would not want to market the literary equivalent to the same children. 

Readers who know they are picking up a graphic horror book will have greatly different expectations than readers who pick up a YA action novel. The best way to know what your readers' expectations are is to read books in the section where yours will be found when it is published.

In turn, I am an advocate for readers (and their parents if they're minors) to set their own standards for the type of literature they will and will not read.  

Set up Violence

Now it's time to set up the violence you have decided to use. Before you jump in, there are a few more things to consider:
  • Understand how your characters will react/fight- people should react differently to violence based on their experiences and personalities
  • Bad guys will try to win- if your main character is an average citizen and she needs to fight ninjas, you must figure out a logical way for things to work out, because the ninjas will not suddenly forget how to fight just to help her out
  • Keep in mind the environment- people use objects around them; know what and where the objects are
  • Choreograph action- in high-action situations there is a lot happening at once; it can be too easy to lose track of where your characters are if you don't take the time to map it out
  • Evaluate motivation- this will affect the level of aggression and determination expected from any character
  • Long-term effects- violence always takes a physical and emotional toll on everyone involved; don't forget about a gunshot wound from last chapter, but it is just as important to not forget about how the violence affected them emotionally.


  1. I really hate it when violence is taken to the ultimate extreme in movies and books, especially when the books are meant for kids! There are a couple books I will not lend to my younger sisters or read again because of it. In my book there is a bit of violence but I hate blood and gore. It makes me cringe and either flip to the next scene or turn off the movie or close the book. I wanted this to be a book that everyone could read. Yes in the final book I had to put in a bit more violence, but it's like what you wrote, it's to push my character to how far he is willing to go to protect the people he cares about. It's the final awakening moment for his character development and thereby needed to be a bit jolting.
    Violence should be balanced. Most people don't like bloody gory things. If you put WAAAY to much in chances are you're going to lose readers rather than gain them. Properly balanced, it can pull readers in, which is always good.

    1. I agree. I do think different people have different limits and there are probably many who would disagree with where mine is, but I'm not a fan of violence pushed too far or too much gore. Once it starts feeling like the plot is a thinly veiled excuse to show as much violence as possible, I check out. On the other hand, I am a sucker for action, which is always violence of some sort.