It’s really easy to hate the other side. I wish more writers remembered that.
I’m posting today not as a writer, but as a reader. Books need villains, or, at the very least, opponents. Everyone knows that. However, I wouldn’t mind if they were merely on the other side of a problem from the main character, just a little awful, or, you know, had unpleasant body odor–which last is perfectly fine in a book: no brain bleach required. However, graphic depictions of the deaths of children, the grisly slaughter of innocent after innocent, dismemberments lavished lasciviously across the pages, I just don’t need those things. Then I start checking Amazon for that brain bleach to get rid of all the stuff I can’t unsee.
Of course, reading it is my own fault. I know which writers indulge. I know better a lot of the time. I read military fiction and lots of adventure. I can handle carnage, but sometimes the plot catches me up and I need to keep wading through way too much sadistic torture. Yeah, no, I don’t watch Game of Thrones. I’m too puny. My plea is not directed at the writers who give us the sadists. They do what they do and some of them do it well. Clearly, there’s a market for it, and I’m not going to go ask anyone to change.
No, my plea is directed at the writers who are wondering if they should do it, too. No need. Don’t go there. Think about it. I’m sure we all know people who hate the Golden State Warriors. (Ok, well, I know some.) But however unfairly fawning the press coverage they receive, however unjustly the referees favor them, the Warriors have not removed anyone’s bodily appendages or stripped all the skin from anyone’s body. Yet these unnamed people I know think poorly of them, very poorly.
Think of a sports team you hate. Have they done anything like that? No, they haven’t. Even though I don’t follow sports, I’d have heard about it if they had. They may have individual bad apples and the occasional criminal, but no one has consumed a small child for lunch. Yet you despise them. I know you do.
You are against them because they are on the Other Side. Life is full of examples of people developing emotional antipathy. Neighbors become enraged over water run off. Litigants hate each other because of money. Fourteen-year old girls smack each other down because of clothes. We’ve already gone over the sports teams. None of these disputes are life or death, but the world is full of hate. Ain’t it grand? You can harness that.
I’m not saying you should write about petty things. War, murder, beheadings of persons pretending to be trolls, whatever. That’s all fine. I’ve read and now written battle scenes with people losing their heads and limbs, but there are a few things on the list that you shouldn’t feel you have to do: sharing the internal monologue of sadists during the sadism is gosh-darned unpleasant. The slaughter of children and pets is not fun (for that, think “tell, not show”), and the removal of bodily appendages lasting for pages results in much sadness. For all concerned, of course.
I know it’s a fine line, and I’m just one person, and inconsistent. I’m reading Bernard Cornwell, and loving the Sharpe books, which have the occasional bit of awfulness. I just don’t need to read lots or even any graphic scenes of torture and dismemberment by the bad guys to take your hero’s side and root for him.