Editor’s Note: This article is the third installment in our five-part series on how to portray tricky subjects in Christian fiction. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching these topics, read our introductory post.
Should you write a scene of human sacrifice where the priest cuts out the victim’s [bleep] with a stone knife, the body [bleep], and the blood [bleepity bleep bleep]? (I’m trying to be sensitive here.)
These kinds of questions plague Christian writers—especially beginners and those who have been raised without exposure to brutality. Even writers who have firm convictions sometimes struggle to discern whether a certain degree of violence is excessive or not.
This article won’t answer all your questions, but it should help you better understand the violence issue and exercise wise judgement.
Why Christians Should Depict Violence
To prove that violence has a place in Christian fiction, we need to examine writing theory. Here at Story Embers, one of the tenets we uphold is that compelling stories should reflect the full human experience. Humans are creatures of reason and emotion, and to “take every thought captive,” we must address both aspects of our nature. Fiction excels at exploring our emotions and humanity in any situation or walk of life. When we ban facets of the human experience from fiction, we’re limiting our God-assigned dominion over the earth. Because violence is one of the world’s harsh realities, it belongs in our fictional worlds to expand our emotional development—not in every novel, but many. If we always avoid it, we’re being dishonest.
But how graphic should we be? I would argue that vividness is necessary at times. We do this, not because we want to highlight violence, but because we need to. If an author omits all the details, he isn’t dealing with violence at all. Compare these two scenes:
#1: I turned away. I couldn’t watch Billy die.
“And now, for my ultimate victory!” Ruthgar shouted.
When I dared to look, Billy was dead and Ruthgar was putting his ax away.
#2: I turned away. I couldn’t watch Grandpa die.
“Any moment now,” the doctor said.
When I dared to look, Grandpa was dead. The doctor fidgeted awkwardly with his glasses.
With the specifics of the beheading removed, the first scene is almost indistinguishable from the second. But the two should be markedly different. I’m not asserting that violent details are imperative or right for every story, but if Christians have the power to shine light on any dismal circumstance, we can do the same as novelists.
A raw portrayal of physical and emotional anguish, properly handled, has multiple benefits:
- It exposes man’s fallenness, prevents us from being overly trusting, and prompts us to consider our own sin and spiritual helplessness.
- It reminds us of our frailty and mortality. In our age of medical breakthroughs and rewritten fairy tales where all the grimness has been extracted, we rarely think about death, and the consequences are significant—pride, love of the world, apathy for the human condition.
- It debunks people’s romanticization of battle.
- It prepares us for hardships we may encounter down the road. Readers who hide from affliction might be unable to cope when they face it in real life.
- Finally, to state the obvious, it builds intensity in a story.
One of the biggest advantages of violence, though, does not involve its dark attributes but how it magnifies times of healing. The Count of Monte Cristo was correct, at least in part. People who have endured suffering do tend to cherish happiness and peace all the more.
A Word of Caution
Although violence can be expertly used in the hands of a master storyteller, we need to be aware of the hazards before diving in. Even if some violence is permissible, we may try to shy away from it as much as possible. I disagree with this mentality, but I know the downsides to violence firsthand, because one of my readers felt wounded, betrayed, and defiled by a scene I wrote (though it wasn’t extremely violent).
Violent scenes are powerful and can scar people. This article’s purpose is not to discuss whether writers are responsible for protecting readers from emotional harm, but if you wish to study the topic, check out my post about guarding our minds and hearts while choosing reading material.
We can never predict readers’ sensitivities. When violence distresses us, it’s usually because we sense an overpowering, invasive darkness, not because we’re squeamish. However, the content that causes one person’s skin to crawl may be something we don’t expect—as in the instance I referenced above. Hopefully this mystery will be unraveled, but until then we can only do our best.
Writing violence can also negatively affect us. If we’ve created a vicious world and forget to include glimmers of hope, we could become cynical and lose our grasp on objective truth. Even worse, we might start reveling in the pain we inflict on our characters.
Finally, an inordinate amount of violence could tarnish our Christian witness. If readers leave our books with the impression that we relish sending characters through hell, they may be confused when they discover that we believe in a God who gave His Son to save people from hell.
The cost of writing violence appears high, but remember the proverbial baby in the bathwater (such a violent metaphor, sheesh). Surely a solution exists, but what is it?
How to Depict Violence Appropriately and Effectively
The time has come to untangle this conundrum. Violence has inescapable dangers, but it is also necessary. If you’re like me, a paradox makes you want to tear the world apart to find an answer.
When I read James 3:1, peace settled over me: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly.”
Although this verse about pastors may not seem comforting at first, it contains a surprisingly encouraging principle for novelists. All pastors will be judged for their teaching, but how many pastors preach pure truth their entire lives as if they were the mouth of God? Since pastors are human, they will err occasionally.
However, James isn’t urging listeners to stay away from teaching because they might stumble. Instead, he’s warning teachers to be vigilant. In a sense, novelists are teachers and thus risk communicating falsehoods. But as long as we understand the gravity of our task, we’re ready to put pen to paper.
Although we’re unlikely to write a foolproof novel that would never disconcert anyone, we can try by following seven guidelines.
1. Seek counsel from various sources. Everyone will yank us in different directions and we’ll have to disappoint some people, but even if we reject a viewpoint, we may glean insights from it. For example, I might write a murder scene from the killer’s point of view despite someone’s objections, but that critiquer might help me realize that the killer’s internal monologue is disturbing and needs toned down. If we only heed advice that affirms our opinions, we could easily become misguided radicals.
2. Keep the target audience in mind. If we’re writing for middle graders, we should restrict the violence to that level. If we’re writing for adults, we can scale it up.
3. Never glorify destruction. Battle is not without honor, but sometimes an author represents a cataclysm as awesome and unquestionable like a god. I hesitantly mention The Sword in the Stars by Wayne Thomas Batson. It’s a wonderful book, but violence overwhelmed the final scenes. Perhaps this tactic isn’t inherently faulty, and I believe Batson was trying to make his villain intimidating (which I admire), but evil seemed to possess all the power throughout the story. Ending on a note of desolation dimmed the positive elements that had been woven in. The spotlight was slightly more on evil’s vigor than the search for truth. In contrast, I bring up Hero of Ages. In one chapter, a character blatantly worships violence and destruction, but his behavior is meant to be ironic. Readers aren’t supposed to sympathize with him. People were butchered, but the massacre was displayed as tragic. To offset death and ruin, we need to demonstrate that hope is greater.
4. Funnel the horror. Violence tends to evoke one of two reactions: shock or an oppressive feeling of darkness. Sometimes these two occur together, but they don’t need to. Shock can be culture changing. For instance, abolitionists once told me that people shrug when they learn that babies are aborted in a nearby building. But, upon hearing that babies are killed there, people exclaim, “Whaaaat!” Ghastly details are alarming, and the key is to channel this response. Shocking readers for no reason is unkind. Violence should have thematic impact, testing characters’ faithfulness to their convictions, punishing them when they’re foolish, and shaking how they view the world.
5. Never endorse unbiblical justification for violence. In a scene from The Inheritance Cycle, Roran decides to kill two guards to help his crew escape. Allowing a character to act pragmatically isn’t wrong, but in this case the author seemed to personally support the choice. Maybe another reader would have interpreted the scene differently, but that was my impression. To keep from promoting humanistic rationale for violence, we need to study Scripture.
6. To be extra safe, we could print a content advisory at the beginning of our books.
In film, one of the most repulsive depictions of violence I’ve seen wasn’t the gory battles in Hacksaw Ridge or any of the other R-rated movies I’ve watched—it was the arrow scene in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Though the violence was relatively minimal in that film, showing hundreds of characters dying to the rock-and-roll beat of “Come a Little Bit Closer” painted the slaughter as comedic. Sure, people are dying and screaming in agony, but these are the antagonists—their lives are worthless, right? Aren’t we free to laugh at their deaths?
On the contrary, if we truly value human life as Christians, that needs to extend to how we portray violence and death in fiction. In my opinion, violence becomes problematic when we use it improperly, regardless of how graphic or rampant it is. We can either remind readers that human life is precious (Hacksaw Ridge) or cheapen it for the sake of a joke. If every human being, whether good or evil, is created in God’s image, treating any life as worthless is, in a sense, a form of blasphemy. If we want to honor God in our storytelling, that means striving to ascribe value to human life—no matter whose it is.
–Josiah DeGraaf, Editor-in-Chief
Some girls can handle blood and gore, but not me. That’s one reason why I write children’s books. I don’t have to deal with those things—or do I? Many children’s authors make the mistake of distorting violence. Villains are entirely unthreatening and commit nothing more treacherous than squashing the protagonist’s cupcake. This may be fine in some instances or in picture books, but a story full of sunshine will give children the wrong impression of the world and cause them to lack discernment regarding danger. I would shudder if I ever ruined a child’s innocence, but if I exclude all violence, I would be hurting children in a different way.
How do we balance reality yet maintain the purity and wonder of childhood? Children’s books can have the same violence as adult books—minus the graphic descriptions. For example, dinosaur attacks are common in my books. Instead of reporting that the person’s intestines oozed out, I could have the character hear screaming that suddenly stopped, and later he’d find bloodstains and T. Rex footprints on the ground. This implies violence rather than showing it, yet the threat is still real. Also, violence can be counteracted by introducing a strong sense of light into the story. The Last Battle could be considered violent, but C. S. Lewis never tarnished children’s innocence because of the overarching theme of hope.
–Mariposa Aristeo, Graphics, Email & Instagram Manager
Preparing for Battle
I’ve always enjoyed an exciting fight scene or murder mystery. Violence can enrich a story, but like a fire that either heats a house or burns it down, it’s dangerous as well as useful. Thankfully we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. Let’s not quench the Spirit, but listen to our consciences and walk in humility. Then we can take the leap.
Tune in next week as Sierra tackles writing about language. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you approach violence as a storyteller and what guidelines do you follow? Share your perspective in the comments!
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)