Violence in story writing: forwarding the plot versus defining a character

In a recent post on Tumblr, bookdrunkinlove discussed her feelings about the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. I want to preface my post by saying that I have not read the series, so I don’t have any direct opinions on the series, its (immense) popularity, or its author. 

I was concerned by her comments that the vividly-detailed and violent deaths of other characters are used as the point of definition for other characters, and that another character is painted as a villain for no other reason than he is angry and violent (that definition alone would classify some of my main characters as villains, when they’re not…). Part of my concern is with the fact that of all the commentary on Tumblr about the Throne of Glass series (which is A LOT), this is the first I’ve heard of these facets in the books. It made me look at the series in a whole new, and frankly, unflattering light.

In fantasy and horror, violence does hold a high place in a lot of books and stories. I accept this as both writer and reader. Other writers and readers of these genres also accept this.

I don’t accept how it is sometimes presented. Violence in a story doesn’t hold my attention if it is there for shock value or violence for the sake of violence (i.e. splatterpunk, torture porn, etc.).

As a writer, I have never gone out of my way to torture a character for the sake of making an impact on the reader or to serve as the definition for another character’s personality. Villains don’t become villains simply because they like violence. If I kill off a character, their killer has a reason for doing so, and while their death may contain a certain shock value (that’s sometimes what makes it horror), their death is not shocking for how its prolonged or how cringe-worthy it was.

I may take some heat for saying so, but in my opinion, it is a mark of poor storytelling if the only way a writer knows how to get readers to care about a character is to expose them to something brutal and traumatizing. How very limiting for our characters.

Characters = people. So, is the writer suggesting the character was not really a person until that one trauma made them whole? No real person I know was ever made into who they are, because of one thing that happened to them, and I’ve had friends who have gone through some terrible things, both violent and traumatic.

And, why is the villain a villain simply because they are angry and have violent tendencies? I question if they are truly a character and not just a murderous cardboard cut-out that floats through the story, stabbing people. There is not one villain I can think of in history who was so one-dimensional as this. (See my older post about antagonists for more about these figures.) They always had one thing in their life they held dear. They were motivated by misguided hopes, dreams, likes, and dislikes, not just anger and enjoyment of killing.

Even the fictional character of Pinhead in the Hellraiser series gets more definition of character than “he just likes to torture people”. Captain Spencer (later, Pinhead) was a person with likes, dislikes, hopes, and dark dreams, long before he picked up the Puzzlebox and became Pinhead. And, after becoming the creature known as Pinhead, he still had motivations beyond torture and killing (at least in the first two films, which were best).

My advice to writers is this: if you only know how to move your characters and your readers through acts of violence, dig deeper. Find what defines your character, beyond the violence, and write about it. Leave the violence for small markers in the plot, not the final goal. You owe it to your characters and your readers to not half-ass the story.

My advice to readers is this: hold writers to higher standards. Don’t be taken in by pretty covers and a shallow sense of who a character is. Want to learn about them. If all you know is a character is “kick ass”, move on, and tell the writer to come back when they can give you a little more than how he or she likes to beat people up.