Thursday, March 24, 2011

Decisions and Violence

Brent Ghelfi’s discussion of violence last week was thought-provoking and raised several issues. I am not so much interested in acts of violence in fiction but, rather, what leads to them.

Any form of action in fiction, regardless of its level of violence, emerges as the result of setting and character, developing naturally from the elements of the story. Yet what interests me more than the act of violence itself is the decision faced by its perpetrator. Therefore, I’m equally fascinated by a character’s impulse to draw his weapon as I am by his determination of when not to draw it.

Many of the books written in the crime genre deal thematically with honor. Readers come to our novels for more than entertainment; some arrive on our doorsteps seeking reassurance—in an uncertain world, they want a story that proves evil will not win the day. After all, when we read a crime-fiction novel, we are suspending our disbelief, knowing from the onset that the protagonist will not lose. She may not produce a clean victory, but she never loses outright. Outcome, at least to a degree, predetermined, readers are left to contemplate character. Acts of violence are the result of character, and character is the result of his or her environment.

So for a character to be three-dimensional, the author must side with nurture over nature.

Violence is important in many of my favorite books including “The Great Gatsby.” I have no interest in reading about a serial killer who lacks a back-story or about a bank robber who just wanted to see if he could "get away with it." Those are caricatures, not characters. I want to know why someone chooses violence over passivity in a particular circumstance just as I want to know why someone else chooses to walk away from a similar confrontation.

This is not to say that every act of violence must be reasonable to me, the reader or the writer. However, the rationale behind the decision must be reasonable to the character committed to it, and it’s my job as the author to sell that rationalization to my disbelief-suspending reader.

Unfortunately, there are serial killers in the world, and there are crazies among us. Yet fiction, when it succeeds, is often more realistic than the world in which we live. After all, when you think about it, could there possibly be a more fitting way for “The Great Gatsby” to end?

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