Make ‘Em Bleed

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I appreciate violence in a story. (Maybe not just in stories; all my favourite sports involve someone getting punched in the face.) It can add a raw, realistic element to a piece. Violence and action are the chili pepper in the story: they spice it up and make it interesting. But it has to be used right. Anyone who has ever had suicide wings knows that spicy does not equal flavour. Sometimes it just kills the taste of everything else. Blood in a story is the same: you have to use it to add something to the story, not just for the sake of having someone bleed.

In the piece I’m editing now, there’s a seriously violent character. I’ve gone through several different versions of how his scenes could go, ranging up and down on the blood scale. The first draft was pretty bad, but the first draft I let someone else see was toned down, because, honestly, the guy was starting to weird me out a little. But the current version has most of those scenes returning to their original, higher, level of violence. I read the drafts side by side, made a lot of notes, and decided the more violent level was the right one. And here’s why.

 1. It builds tension. The violent character (nicknamed Wild Card in the first draft) needs to be stopped before the worst can happen. And the best way to illustrate the worst is to show what he’s capable of. Then he’s not just some guy who needs to be stopped if it’s not too inconvenient. He’s a fucking terrible person who must be stopped at all costs, because if he’s not, something truly bad will happen. Something worse than what’s already happening.

2. It illustrates character. The violence shows what kind of person Wild Card is, and sets up conflicts between him and other characters, good and bad. Their reactions to what he does show what kind of people they are. Are they okay with it? Does it disgust them? Why? And what are they going to do about it?

3. It highlights vulnerability. Particularly useful in this case, because Wild Card’s victim is a character who, until quite recently, was very hard to hurt. Seeing a badass character in a situation where they’re scared and helpless creates intrigue, because they have to come up with a way to get through it that does not rely on their traditional strengths. They have to be clever about it, and there’s always a chance it won’t work. Invulnerable characters are not interesting; people who get bloodied up and then try to beat the shit out of the bad guy with a broken chair leg are.

4. It makes heroes. One of the main characters has an opportunity to be the hero here. But his hero cred will be seriously diluted if the threat isn’t real or dire enough. There must be a sense that he’s not only saving the day, but that the consequences of not saving it will be really fucking bad. There has to be danger, to him and the victim, or there’s nothing for the character to gain from acting. He could just wait it out.

This is what I came up with, at least with regard to this particular story. And I’m feeling good about it. Maybe not entirely comfortable, because I’ve never written this kind of violence before, but it’s working. At least for me. The characters…they probably feel differently.

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