Violence in real life is brutal, traumatizing and usually over before you have a chance to think or react.
I've been mercifully fortunate to undergo only a few incidents of real violence or narrowly averted violence in my life. I was once grabbed by a man in a dark, deserted street, but I managed to trick him into believing that I had friends in the doorway of a nearby building, so that he let go of me for a second. And I had fast feet.
As a journalist during the conflicts in the Balkans, I often saw the aftermath of violence, but only rarely was I in the middle of it. One terrifying night in the summer of 2001, I ran for my life through dark deserted streets to escape from a mob firing automatic weapons. When I was finally able to get indoors, a man who was out of his head with terror leaped on me and tried to sexually assault me. I fought him off and then had to lay on the floor of a room while bullets whizzed by the open windows and pinged off of the gutters just a few feet away.
Those experiences have given me an idea of what real violence is like, and the discrepancy between that reality and the way violence is usually portrayed in books and movies is often disturbing. Before I had those experiences I found gratuitous violence in fiction to be merely boring. Violence that is divorced from emotion and real human reactions of shock and trauma felt meaningless. After my experiences in conflict areas, it feels both meaningless and disrespectful, dismissive of the experiences of those who have undergone far worse than I have.
Arie's rules of fictional violence
I am reasonably tough and I wasn't traumatized by my experiences. I'm not all that disturbed by reading violence. But I usually avoid books that seem to be primarily about violence.
And yet my books have fictional violence in them. My contemporary fantasy The Kyrennei Series has even been called a thriller by reviewers, due to the violent content.
Let me lay it out clearly then. I don't write violence the way 80 to 90 percent of action and thriller books are written. Here are my rules of violence in fiction:
- The violence in a good thriller isn’t where the greatest suspense is. The suspense is in our emotions about the characters.
- And yet the violence must be integral to the plot. It should not be an aside just stuck in there to titillate.
- Violent scenes should be brutal, even traumatic, and avoided when possible by both the characters and writers alike.
- Violent scenes should not be entirely pleasant even for the reader. Making it purely entertaining is a betrayal.
That said, there are times when you can’t avoid violence in fiction. And it is better to have it out there than in real life. The story must be told. And The Kyrennei Series is a hard and desperate story. It’s fiction—even fantasy—on the literal plane. And yet there is a deeper level of reality where this story is true. And that truth has to be told. Even when it’s hard.
The road to deep hope leads through darkness
A reader recently told me that my books are like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a great book, and at first I was simply pleased to be favorably compared to an awesome author. But then I realized that The Road is categorized as literary fiction, not popular dystopia. I've been categorizing my books with things like The Hunger Games, not with literary dystopia.
So, how in the world is The Soul and the Seed like The Road?
They are in wildly different settings after all. The Road is in a grim, future in a destroyed world where people resort to cannibalism to survive. The Soul and the Seed is set solidly in the present. The dystopia is inherent in today’s socially harsh and physically unsustainable society… with one fatal twist that isn’t even apparent on the surface.
The similarity is more in the way that violence, despair and emotion are dealt with. Much of the violence in popular urban fantasy and dystopia is “justified” and almost enjoyable to read.
And the violence in my books isn’t fun. It’s all too real.
Why read it then?
To the readers of books like The Road or The Soul and the Seed, it’s partly the authentic spirit of the people that keeps you glued to the page. It's also the burning questions we carry inside whether we read this sort of thing or not.
How do we live with despair? How do you go on through anything, no matter how terrible and gut-wrenching? Is hope just wishful thinking?
Authentic answers to these questions have always come hard. But they can be answered in bits and pieces--in the gentleness of a person forced to fight, in the need that binds the strong and the weak together, in the fact that you still seek life and comfort amid horrific circumstances, in the play of children in wartime, in the courage those who know they cannot win..
If you don’t have the darkness--real darkness--true and desperate, how can you have an story about hope?
I wanted to write about these things, but I also wanted to do it in a gripping story without the tiniest whiff of moralistic preaching. I am as much a seeker as the reader. The story is there to sweep you away to another reality while simultaneously making you question your own world, to terrify you and help you feel deeply.
And it may just help you find hope. Or not. Depending. But it will grip you and make you fall in love with the characters, regardless.
An example from The Soul and the Seed
Let me put it technically. The Soul and the Seed has three or four incidents of violence in it, depending on if you count hearing violence at a distance or not. That’s not a peaceful book. But it isn’t that much violence when compared to a book like The Hunger Games, which is (after the first third) essentially a sequence of violent incidents.
And yet readers who have read both The Hunger Games and The Soul and the Seed will often say the latter is scarier and more intense. People who can read about teenagers slaughtering each other in The Hunger Games, sometimes find The Kyrennei Series to be “too much.”
And that's how it goes. a writer can't please everyone. If I want the reader to feel hope deeply, I have to make the reader feel pain deeply as well.
The only problem is with telling readers that. I want to give fair warning about the violence in the series. And yet violence isn’t at the core of the story. There are other readers who find modern fiction too violent who will actually like The Soul and the Seed better than The Hunger Games. Which is more "intense" or "violent" Is to some degree subjective and bases on what kind of violence the reader is prepared to handle.
Sometimes a thing is described best by saying what it is not. I liked the idea of The Hunger Games up until the middle of the first book. But then the violence became mechanical. The emotion slid into melodrama, even though it didn't need to. By the third book the violence read like the description of a video game. It wasn’t painful to read. It was a game.
Not everything must be painful, but if you want real hope, it is likely that getting to it will hurt.
And that is what The Kyrennei Series does. It goes for real hope. Hope that doesn’t pull any punches. And it is wrenching to get there.
Books for 99 cents
Code of the Outcast (Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series) will be published on July 7. As of today, it is available for preorder. For just a few days you can get it for 99 cents. Next week the price goes up to $2.99 and then to $3.99 when it's published on July 7.
Book 3 of the series, The Taken and the Free, is on sale this week at 99 cents too, for the last time. Time to get your summer reading.
If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, I have a special offer going. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:
- Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here.
- Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. )
- Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.
Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.