Violence: Question or Answer?

I listened to an excellent interview of one of my favorite writers today, JM DeMatteis, over at Word Balloon. In it, DeMatteis brings up the fact that so many genre stories, be they sci fi space operas, comic books, sword and sorcerer fantasy, or whatever, almost always end up solving the big conflict with a big fight. No matter how bright the characters are or how smart the story, our heroes often solve their problems with violence, best intentions or not. DeMatteis wonders what sort of message we’re sending with that formula, and why does it always have to be that way? And he doesn’t really bring it up, but I have to wonder if that’s a part of why genre fiction tends to be looked down upon by our “high class” ivory-towered counterparts over in the literary world.

I think on a subconscious level I’ve understood that problem. In “Shades of Red,” for example, I end the story just before the last big fight with the last big bad. My reasoning was that it would be just one more action scene between a hero and a villain, and who needs one more of those? Don’t we know how those always end up? After all, if the hero loses, that’s probably the beginning of the story, not the end. And I think it worked. Most people I got feedback from seemed to agree.

In several of my other stories, I’ve tried to circumvent the big punch ending with some clever twist. In my math pulp story currently out for consideration, the hero defeats the big monster with (pseudo)science, no blood drawn. In my Sevastian Dusan story (which still needs heavy revision before I try to send it anywhere) the heroine finds what I would consider a pretty unconventional and nonviolent solution to a standard life-threatening scenario.

I love a good fight scene, but I think there’s a lot of truth to the dilemma DeMetteis presents. None of us wants to experience violence in real life, so why do we always make our heroes so good at dispensing pain and punishment? Is the only measure of heroism how hard a punch they can take?

It’s something to keep in mind, anyway. If you’ve got a smart character, don’t dumb them down just for a bang-up ending.

With that in mind, I worked a bit on a writing exercise tonight featuring Harry Webster, who I’ve written of once before (and who I planned to include in my Scarlet Ranger novel). Harry is a boy genius son of a genius inventor and adventurer. He’s sort of my homage to the old Johnny Quest (or even DC’s Champions of the Unknown)-style heroes that you don’t really see anymore (though the Venture Bros. cartoon is a fantastic parody of them). By 15 or so Harry invents his signature gadget, the Quantum Hopper, which allows him to shrink down to microscopic size and have all sorts of adventures in a tiny scale.

So here is young Harry at an earlier age, on what might be one of his first adventures.

The writing prompt: Write a story about…a playground monster.

This is just a bit of it. If I can finish and polish it up I may try submitting it somewhere.

 Darker Pebbles

Harry Webster, aged seven, lay in a thin layer of gravel and peered up at the complex latticework overhead. Red paint slopped on a series of interlocking triangles. Other children swung amongst the bars, screaming and laughing. Harry imagined there was some kind of message there, about chaos and laughter in a universe attempting to force order onto orderless being. Then some kid suggested that Harry’s head was in fact comprised of excrement and interrupted his reverie. The young boy, Harry had forgotten his name, or rather had never bothered to take note of it, fled toward the teachers hovering at the edge of the playground.

Harry sighed and sat up. He supposed the appropriate response would be to respond in kind? Or should he report the misbehavior to the teachers? Neither option seemed viable. Or perhaps he should find empathy with one of his other classmates? One glance at the other commonly bullied children, though, quickly dispelled that idea. One appeared to be picking his nose, and the other was attempting to use a heavy rock as a teeter-totter partner.

The analyzer in Harry’s pocket beeped. He peered at the small green-tinted read-out. Disappointingly, there was nothing interesting about the small, smooth rocks that carpeted the playground. He tossed the stone aside, dejected. Perhaps the geology on the other side of the fence would offer more unique properties…

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6 thoughts on “Violence: Question or Answer?”

  1. AN INTERESTING POINT, ALEX!
    One gets tired of reading stories where the hero wins, not because he’s smarter, or because he’s right, or because he has to, but because he happens to be stronger or tougher. It gets dull. I often try to write around those – a climax where the hero simply overpowers the villain isn’t really exciting or rewarding. We like to see ’em use their brains to overcome adversity. Of course, the “adversity” angle still demands a confrontation-based plot, the likes of which are often absent in Literature. Eh.
    Of course, I think about the end of “American Gods”, where Neil Gaiman avoided a punch-up of any kind, and it made it suuuuuccccckkkkkk. “I read 600 pages for this?!” DAMN YOU!

  2. I think this is a “Space Opera” invention in the sci-fi category. Most of my favorite sci-fi stories of my childhood were more serious with the emphasis on “science” and did not have a lot of violence. In fact the hero often went to great lengths to avoid it because he was just an ordinary guy.

    I think there are still lots of stories like that out there, maybe harder to find. I haven’t paid attention to the Hugo winners since I was a kid but they used to be mostly non-violent resolutions.

  3. I think that’s true, but I would expand it to include all the pulp/superhero stuff of the ’30s and ’40s. At least as far as the modern age is concerned – guys like Beowulf and Achilles were solving problems with their meaty fists long before Batman or Flash Gordon.

    Odysseus is an interesting case and, ultimately, failure. He’s touted as being the smartest, most clever guy around, and for most of his journey home he outsmarts his opponents. Then at the end he and his son massacre a room full of rich guys in the goriest battle this side of the Trojan War. It’s an odd turn in the Odyssey.

  4. The flip side is that I think a lot of genre enthusists would be disappointed if there weren’t a final battle in the story. It’s come to be expected. Now, that’s not to say that I think you can’t write a great climax without bloodshed and fisticuffs (or swordplay and magic fights), but I think you’d have to do a really super job of it to upset the readers’ expectations so drastically and still have them like it.

    However, I definitely prefer a story when the main character gets to win with their smarts rather than only with their brawn. A combination of the two can be fun.

  5. Yes, but they get the jump on the suitors by going at them IN DISGUISE. It’s a fine distinction.

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