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How Should Christian Authors Depict Violence?

October 29, 2018

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 judgment.

 

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:

 

  1. It exposes man’s fallenness, prevents us from being overly trusting, and prompts us to consider our own sin and spiritual helplessness.
  2. 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.
  3. It debunks people’s romanticization of battle.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

7. Pray.

 

Staff Perspectives

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, Summit & Marketing Director

 

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, Public Relations Director

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 foul 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!

54 Comments

  1. E. Grace

    Such a good post! Thanks for this.
    I’m definitely going to think about this as I write. And I’m looking forward to the next article as well!

    Reply
  2. Daeus Lamb

    Hey Josiah and Mariposa, I wanted to step in and give a thumbs up to each of your perspectives. This was my first time reading them and I’m thankful you took the opportunity to write them.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Must have forgotten to send these to you in advance! Haha, well, I’m glad you appreciated them. 🙂

  3. Priscilla Krahn

    Once again, great post! It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot. Especially while writing my young adult mission field novel. Thanks for the well thought out tips. I’m looking forward to incorporating some of it into my next book. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Maddie

    This was such an encouraging post! Thank you! I’m navigating writing a series around a war, and I’ve been struggling a bit around the violent parts because of people I would like to read my book. This is a great reminder that violence is part of life, and that toning it down too much is just as hurtful as putting too much.

    Reply
    • Parker Hankins

      What are you doing here?!

    • Daeus Lamb

      Glad to help. May your stories reveal God’s power in the darkness of the world. 🙂

  5. Victoria

    Great post! I have loved every single one of these and am looking forward to the rest.
    Thank you so much!

    Reply
  6. Kate Lamb

    Well said, sir. *thumbs up*

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Why thank you, ma’am. *bows*

  7. Bella D.

    Wow, this has changed some of my thinking on several points! Thank you so much, Daeus! I write historical fiction, so this has been a really big deal for me to balance it well but do justice to history and to the people who lived it.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Hey, a historical fiction author! I’ve somehow found myself writing fantasy with everyone else, but I’m really grateful you’re holding the front in that genre. History is so deep. I’m glad this article seems to have helped you with bringing history to life.

  8. Parker Hankins

    Wow!! AWESOME article!! I’ve wondered about this a lot!

    Reply
  9. R.M. Archer

    I find that violence is something I tend not to worry about in my books. While I don’t include gory detail, I also don’t think about the way I handle the action’s tone, which is a problem. When I write fantasy my stories include a fair amount of violence, often centering around wars or featuring violent antagonists (or even protagonists), and I think I need to be more mindful of the tone I’m setting with the violence in those stories.
    Thank you for the article.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Mmm. That’s a good realization. It’s something I have to constantly watch over.

  10. Penny Wood

    REALLY loved this article!!! It came at literally the PERFECT time for me!! Thanks so much!!!!

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Hey, that’s awesome.

  11. Tess

    Well said! I agree with you on that arrow scene from Guardians – gah I almost couldn’t watch it. And yet I watch Band of Brothers, which is eons more violent, without any problem, because BoB values human life and uses their violence to paint the mood solemnly. And it never fails to stir my heart and make me gasp when a trench is shelled or a hospital bombed or anything else bad. Because the mood is different. Now I’m officially rambling. Ahem. Anyways. Violence is good in serious cases but should never be trivialized.

    Reply
    • C.M. - II Tim. 1:7

      ^ I agree with you! I think Band of Brothers is an excellent series in terms of the war genre. I haven’t seen Guardians 2, but from you all are saying, I can still relate, since I had the “gah – this is unnecessary” and then look away moment when watching a strangle/drowning scene in Blade Runner 2049. I still do love the story premise and point of BR2049 – since it’s about love and humanity and life, but that one scene grossed me out.

  12. Maddie Morrow

    This is such a good post.

    First off, it’s been probably ten years since I read the entire Inheritance cycle, but I REMEMBER THAT SCENE WITH RORAN AND I HATED IT!!

    Anyway.

    I have a pretty high tolerance for violence for the most part, so I always try to bounce those scenes off people I trust to give me their opinion.
    We’re not going to be able to please everyone, but I think the key is like you said, don’t write violence just for the sake of violence, and remember to counterbalance it with hope.

    Showing that all life has value is an excellent point. In my last book, my character gets caught up in several battles throughout the story. The first several times he kills someone it freaks him out and makes him sick. Toward the end he kills someone and feels nothing about it, and upon realizing that it scares him because he doesn’t want to become cold and heartless, so he does some soul searching.

    Excellent post!

    Reply
  13. Isabelle

    Awesome article! I write historical fiction and the struggle to depict violence amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution while still showing hope is real. Not to mention the brutalities Christians suffered under the Roman Empire. Thanks so much!

    Reply
  14. duskflower

    I’m so grateful that you mentioned the arrow scene in GOTG 2. I love Marvel but was deeply sickened by that. I knew immediately that it was wrong and horrible and I’m frustrated that others didn’t always see that to be so. That’s ultimately why I can’t like that movie. From that moment on I realized my sensitivity to violence and it’s helpful be more thoughtful about how I portray it. As an action movie fan, I can grow hardened to it and I pray that God will always let my sensitivity remain. I’m glad that you feel the same way about it.

    Another violent scene I was revolted by was in ND Wilson’s Last of the Lost Boy. I don’t want to linger on it, but basically there was a portion of the book that took place during Aztec child sacrifice, and he described a child’s heart being cut out and his body being thrown down to the crowd below and multiple other sacrifices. Mind you, this is a middle-grade children’s book. ND Wilson has violent books, but he’s a Christian writer and often uses it quite discretely: describing violence and not shying from it, but never gratuitously. That’s the line, I think, between overuse and the right amount: how necessary it is and how gratuitous. In the aforementioned child sacrifice example it never really had any plot relevance and the brutality of the Aztecs, though a real fact, didn’t matter to the plot or character development. It’s a sober reminder that even master storytellers that are very skilled at working with sensitive topics can fall into it sometimes. Violence, when overdone, can be a massive, bloody blot on even the best stories – and, when used right (as in ND Wilson’s other books) can show how great hope and great courage can exist in even a world as dark and depraved as our own. I like your fire analogy. I think it is important for children’s books to, very carefully and prayerfully, depict violence. I remember, as a child, I had a few crushing and very real fears: kidnapping (which honestly did more good than harm), break-ins, losing people or even just things I loved, getting lost… Books where kids do lose what they love and get lost and are hurt but overcome in triumph are what helped me find more courage. Actually, to be honest, it wasn’t children’s books at all – it was the Lord of the Rings, when I was 8. The barrow-wights would scare me (they still do) with their knives threatening to slit the throats of the hobbits and darkness but as soon as they called on Tom Bombadil he would come and he would sing his song and they would be powerless and the hobbits would be free. That scene is criminally underrated. It still nearly brings me to tears as it reminds me of a God who is there, even in the darkness, and as soon as He decides to sing the darkness is stripped of all strength. Or the Battle of Pelennor Fields, where neither Eowyn or Eomer fear death, even as people are dying around them and even as they get hurt. That also brings me to tears of hope.

    I appreciate you willing to cover this, your examples and for reminding me of all the times violence was too much or when violence was just enough to reveal a little of our world’s deep darkness and, because of it, a little more of the surpassing, glorious light.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Wow, I wouldn’t’ have expected that of ND. I’ll use it as a warning to myself.

      That’s a wonderful story about LOTR. Honestly, that story keeps getting deeper every year.

  15. C.M. - II Tim. 1:7

    Great article, Daeus! This list and explanation here is really insightful as to what violence is appropriate and what isn’t.
    I’m not sure if any of you here have read Tales of Starlight by Bryan Davis, but in the story, Davis had one main character think about the justification of violence (more specifically, if she is right by killing people who are enemies against her cause), yet never reaches a conclusion or finish her train of thought…
    😛
    I hate it when authors do that (either on purpose or just by mistake), and I thought to myself “Do NOT ever leave readers hanging when you’re writing a story that addresses violence!.”

    ~C.M.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Ha! Yes, I haven’t read that book but it would be quite frustrating.

  16. Katie Hanna

    I think it’s important, also, to remember that readers have choices of their own. That’s why content warnings are so crucial–because just as each writer has to make a decision about the level of violence they’re comfortable with, each reader has to do the same. As Christian writers, we need to be honest upfront about WHAT we’re putting in our stories.

    I have several Christian writer pals who write books far more graphic on the violence front than I’d ever be okay with reading . . . but I still respect their process of discernment. I just tell them, “I won’t be reading this one, but go for it, anyway!”

    [Of course, this stems partly from my general dislike of action stories, not only from the violence issue. Lol. Like I said, each reader is unique, and it’s their job to know their own sensitivities–the writer can’t do that for them.]

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      So true, Katie. I hope content advisories will become more common in books, though of course we don’t want to overdo it and point out /everything that could possibly be objected to/.

      I write moderately graphic stories and have pretty good tolerance for graphic content, but I’m so grateful for the people who write “cleaner” stories because there’s a time and a place for that. I also hope to respect authors who are more graphic than me as long as they hold to biblical principles of wisdom.

    • Katie Hanna

      Oh yes. I’ve seen people write loooooooooooooooong and exhaustive content advisories and I think, “now that’s going a bit overboard.” When I write a book review on Goodreads I usually include a content advisory, so it’s like a sentence or two describing the violence level, a sentence about sexual content, and a sentence about language, and I consider my work done.

      Agreed! Even among us Christian writers, there’s a large variety. My own writing tends to not be very graphic, but it CAN be very dark, on the other hand. I often end up writing about mental illness because that’s a subject close to my heart.

  17. Andrew Schmidt

    Thanks for this article, Daeus! I’ve noticed a couple of characters I just recently killed were somewhat violent deaths (I’ll try to fix that sometime.) Anyway, this helped a lot. I’ve thought about this topic before, but not as much as this. Thanks!

    Reply
  18. A. L. Helland

    Thank you for the article! My brother wrote a historical fiction set in the Reformation, and it covers the true event of St Bartholomew’s massacre, among other violent moments that occurred during that time. He focused mostly on how the violence appeared through the eyes of the main characters, who were Christians and emotionally affected by what happened. I’ve found that it’s a good technique for portraying violence – to not simply describe the gory details, but look at the wonder of life and the emotional pain of death or suffering through someone’s eyes. Personally I’ve written adventure stories set in WW2 and 1800s Australia, mystery, a mission field novel, etc., and I find the level of violence really depends on the genre. But mainly I look at it this way: I’m not writing a violence scene, I’m writing an experience that happens to my character – and it may be gory or gruesome. For sensitive scenes I definitely rely on my characters rather than plot and even descriptions. I think it helps the story go down better for the reader as well. There’s my two cents on the subject!
    Again, great article, Daeus. I’m enjoying hearing everybody’s thoughts on these tough subjects.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      “I’m not writing a violence scene, I’m writing an experience that happens to my character” That’s a neat perspective.

  19. Chelsea R.H.

    This is a fantastic article. I tend to shy away from depicting graphic violence but the stories I write often tend to have very violent premises (I write a lot about revolutions) and I’ve struggled with how much violence I feel like I can cope with and how much readers can cope with.
    I’ve actually pretty much stopped watching superhero movies (both Marvel and DC) because of things that you mentioned above. Death is so cheap in Marvel and the violence is treated just like another joke. The only exceptions being the Captain America movies which I feel deal much more seriously with death, war and trauma.
    Anyway, thanks for this article. I’ll definitely be thinking and praying about this topic.

    Reply
  20. Mattie Meres

    Thank you so much for this article! I’m finishing up an allegory about a band of missionaries and in several parts some violence is needed. I really don’t want to have my book be one people have to look away from at any point or edit out bits while doing as a read-aloud (as my dad has had to do several times!) and I think this article will help me know what is good to write and what isn’t. Thanks!!
    I’m really enjoying this series! Thanks Story Embers and crew!

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      An allegory about missionaries? Is it more Bunyan or Lewis style? Quite a neat idea.

    • Mattie Meres

      It’s kind of like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress since I spend quite a bit of time on the missionaries journey to the place where they will be serving and their hardships on the way, but the book is really meant to bring out the need for those to share the Gospel by showing in a different way the battle between light and darkness. It might be more C.S Lewis style.

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