Violence in Fiction: Navigating Around Reader Sensitivity (Or Plowing Right Though It)
Updated: Jan 19
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Today's question about violence in fiction may surprise people who know the blood and gore horror-loving part of me. I'm the type who adds MORE gore to my author's manuscripts. And I won't watch anything where the protagonist doesn't get their ass beaten so severely they walk into the climax looking like a giant purple thumb.
But let's put aside my passion for the twisted and ask: what is the effect of violence on a reader? Are there any benefits to it? Violence in fiction can deflate the tension out of a scene and spark cognitive curiosity and instantaneous emotional response.
But it can also be a touchy subject for some readers.
I have a pretty simple single answer to all these questions. I'll tell you at the end, but first, let's explore some of the problems with violence.
Violence in Fiction and Reader Sensitivity: Why Are You a Big Sissy?
Why are some people so triggered by violence while others don't mind?
Well, I don't think it is that simple. I, for instance, relish violence in books, movies, and more, but after reading Under the Lesser Moon (Amazon affiliates) by Shelly Campbell, I realized that this doesn't hold up in all instances.
Never have I had to put a book down and compose myself before continuing. But Shelly got me (not an easy feat, so good for her), and now I know that a specific form of graphic violence against children is too much for me.
However, what I know that not all readers seem to understand, is that my feelings of non-comfort are not a reflection of the book! Just because I am sensitive to something does not make the book bad.
In fact, I loved Under the Lesser Moon, and I am excited to read the next. It was a great fantasy epic, child abuse and all.
Obvious to me, my reaction stems from being a mother and that innate need to protect my children and others. Our sensitivities often reveal deep-seated fears and insecurities we have hidden away.
How can confronting those things in a perfectly safe environment like my cozy reading chair be bad?
I have a post here about why exposure to this kind of stuff (as seen in horror) is a good thing, even for kids in moderation. And, as I said, not everyone is triggered by the same type of violence. I'm just fine with decapitation, rape, blood, guts, and more.
("...just fine" comes off weird. "Can stomach it" might make me sound less sociopathic.)
Though I understand, I do not necessarily agree with the main arguments against violence in media. The two most popular are:
Scenes of violence (especially sexual) can "trigger" past trauma and feel like a second violation, like reliving it. Though I'd say, there is just as much evidence (probably more) that shows exposure to these things can be therapeutic for victims with anxiety and PTSD, helping people gain mastery over their fears.
It is well-known that many people are interested in stories that contain violence (like me). These same people often become sentimental over the events in the story, even if they are only fictional. This sentimentality can lead to a dangerous detachment from reality, where people may start to believe violence is acceptable.
Even though not really backed up by any objective evidence, proponents of this last idea use it to blame video games and music for all the bad behavior in the world. If you want my opinion, it's these types who end up becoming the book burners.
"Cancel everything! People might get offended, or books/shows/music/people could corrupt our children!"
Read Fahrenheit 451 (Amazon affiliate link) if you don't know what I'm talking about.
I will say that it is possible violence could be romanticized by a select few individuals and acted out. But it is my humblest opinion that this was going to happen anyway. They call these people ticking time bombs for a reason. If you come across someone like this, I suggest you stay out of the blast radius.
There are various explanations for why people are fascinated by violence. Some say it is because we all have a dark side that we repress, and stories about violence allow us to safely explore those impulses. Others believe that we are simply hard-wired to be interested in stories about survival and competition, as these were essential for our ancestors' survival.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that violence will continue to be a popular addition to fiction. As long as people are interested in reading about it, authors will keep writing stories containing violence.
Actually, that might not be true. Even if no one else in the world wanted to hear or see any form of evil, I would still write it...I don't do it for you. I do it for me. But not everyone is me...some of you give a rat's ass what your readers want from you. So let's keep discussing so that you can find your way over to my side (the right side).
Is it ok to offend your readers' sensibilities?
So remember when I said that I had a simple answer to all of this?
Here it is.
Stop worrying about it!
If you approach your writing honestly and intend to explore the human subject authentically, then why does it matter? Do you like your work?
We tend to overly consider the sensitivities of others and forget to ask ourselves what we think of our work. It's because writers are some of the most self-conscious and anxious bunch I have ever met. It's a writing self-esteem issue, for sure.
I'll tell you a little story.
When my daughter was young, she liked to draw, paint, and do all the usual little kid things. Every time she would make something new, she'd show it to me and ask in her sweet little voice, "Mommy, do you like my picture?"
"Yes, sweetie. You did very good," I would say.
Then, she would ask again, "Do you like it, mommy? Do you think it is good?"
"Yes, of course."
And then she would ask again. And round and round we would go, forever, until I finally would get fed up. Or just leave. She is an OCD little thing. Think female Young Sheldon.
Every day this would happen, until one day, I got so fed up that I told her, "You are never allowed to ask me if I like another piece of your artwork ever again."
Her big black eyes looked up at me, horrified.
"From now on, I want you to ask yourself if you like it. Do you think you did the very best you could? Do you think you made a good picture?"
Now, I thought she would get upset thinking mommy didn't like any of her art, but she just stood there staring at her picture. Her head slowly bobbed side to side as she examined her work from all angles.
"I can do better!" she blurts out, clumping up her paper. She returned to her room, and half an hour later, she reemerged with a new painting and a bright smile. She didn't ask if I liked it. Instead, she told me, "This one is my favorite. I worked really hard," and put it on the fridge herself.
After that day, her self-confidence grew immensely, and she worked harder to make things too.
(I'm a little miffed at that, actually. Mommy got 5-minutes of paint splatters, but she made pretty little houses and animals for herself.)
Honestly, I told her what I did because I was tired of answering the same question a million times after every finger painting. But I tell you what, I really learned something that day about the human animal.
We are the most demanding critics of ourselves and are terrified to let ourselves down. We relinquish accountability to our inner nag by worrying about what other people think of us instead. Because if it all goes wrong, we don't have to feel so bad about it.
For my daughter, mommy was easy to please, and she relied on my opinion to judge her work. But I think she kept asking me if I liked it over and over because she knew deep down she didn't work to her full potential. This created a self-esteem issue about her art. She could no longer tell what "good" meant and never trusted me when I told her I liked it.
If you worry that your book is not good enough or that it might be offensive or "wrong" in some way, then I think it is time for you to start looking inward for answers.
Do you like your book? Did you do the best you possibly could, or could you do better if you tried? Did you overdo the violence? Do you think it is an appropriate level of savagery for your story?
Trust yourself and take a chance.
Not everyone is going to like it. And that is fine. You don't like every book, so why would you expect any different? Focus on making yourself happy first. Don't let yourself down.
Bu now. There are those individuals who will freak out when they read it. Who might even put up a big fuss...
A note to sensitive (note: NOT sensitivity) readers.
(I'm getting less and less tolerant of people's "feelings" with every passing day. The following section will exhibit this.)
This could have something to do with violence, but to be honest, it probably doesn't.
Violent media used to be the big sensitive issue. Puritan types didn't want that or nudity corrupting their children. But nowadays, the puritan types are more worried about offending someone or another by calling them a bad name or showing an aspect of humanity/society that makes them uncomfortable.
Look. If you don't like a book because it offends you, stop reading it. Pick up another book. Oh well, this one wasn't for you. Your sensitivities have nothing to do with the quality of the book. No need to shit on it unless it is objectively bad (as in poorly written.)
Readers that blame the book for not being their type of book bother me. I'm not saying to give a book 5 stars if you didn't like it, but say it wasn't for you, not head out to the crazy brigade to have it taken off the shelves. Writers like Amélie Wen Zhao and many more have dealt with the near career-ending backlash from sensitive readers like you for the silliest things. And much of the time before their books have even been released.
I don't care if a book is littered with racist slurs and depictions of the worst violence against minorities, women, or children. I don't care if a book was co-written by Satan himself. Your sensitivities—your triggers—do not get to make decisions for all readers.
But you do have the ability to put the book down!
A note about Sensitivity Readers: If you're paying someone to find something problematic with your book, they will find something. What else are they going to do, take your money and tell you that there is nothing wrong and you wasted that money? No. They need to justify you paying them somehow.
A note to Sensitivity Readers: Your job is a joke. Get a real one, swindler.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.