Friday (August 31) at 1030: Violence in Fantasy
Panelists listed in program: Scott Lynch, D. H. Aire, James Enge, Doug Hulick
Disclaimer: These are my notes from the panel and my own, later thoughts. I often was unable to attend the entire panel, and also chronically missed panelist introductions. When possible I try to note who said something, but often was unable to. Also, unless something is in double quotes it should be considered a summary and not a direct quotation.
Scott Lynch: You can’t just set Doug Hulick on fire.
Me (from the crowd): Maybe you can’t.
The panel mostly focused on how much violence is too much, when is it gratuitous. The conclusion seemed to be that it’s not gratuitous if it’s necessary to the story, but you shouldn’t just be using it as a way to get yourself out of a corner you’ve written yourself into.
Also, violence acts as a symbol of agency for readers, so they can feel they can palpably affect events for the better within the world.
The question is when does emphasizing violence as agency become pathological? No good answers for that. People need to be able to know the difference between wish fulfillment violence and it being appropriate in the real life.
So should the bad guys be humanized or no? Split view there. Orcs should be gross and evil. (But this is something I never really liked because reality is not that black and white.)
Also, what about gross out? Well, horror is best, terror is next best, and if you can’t get either gross-out will work. (Stephen King paraphrase) Sometimes you just want to do that to your readers.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about this panel – it was mostly just very entertaining, and I got to heckle Scott Lynch from the crowd like an asshole. I regret nothing.
I do think the idea that violence is a symbol of agency is an interesting one. Sf/f tends to have a lot of stories in it that do involve violence, particularly ones with quest plotlines. If nothing else, that means reading them takes us to a very different place beyond just the setting. Most of us will never participate in violence like that in our lives, and it is a very palpable symbol of acting directly upon the world and whatever problem is at hand. (Hell, if we ever come up against violence in our lives, there’s a good chance it will be as a victim of that violence.)
I’m not a fan of sf/f where things are extremely black and white. I like to see characters struggling with difficult decisions. And violence plays into that because it becomes a difficult, painful thing when the struggle isn’t black and white. That’s something I’ve really enjoyed about the Vorkosigan books so far, for example.
Chandler’s Law got mentioned – “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” There was some lively discussion around this, because it’s something that could really go well or poorly. Sometimes the man with the gun can open up all sorts of new plot possibilities – who is the man? Why is he coming after the characters? But there’s a major chance it’ll just scream hey I totally wrote myself into a corner.
I’ve never had to resort to Chandler’s Law, myself. I’m really hoping that I never do.
One thing I wondered (and maybe they covered this but I missed it) how much sf/f is actually being viewed as too violent. I can see this being an issue in video games and movies, since of course there’s a visual representation of that violence – and yeah, a lot of them just have action scenes for the sake of blowing shit up. But perhaps I’ve been lucky in my choice of books; I’ve yet to encounter one where I felt it was really overly violent or gory. (I’ve only encountered one book in my life that I found truly over the top, and that was American Psycho; that book actually made me physically ill. I also generally don’t read horror.) If nothing else, trying to have violence in the written word the way it exists in a movie would be… difficult to accomplish. And probably incredibly boring to read.