The Rules of Combat: Violence in Fanfic
by V. Watts
When this topic was first broached to me, it was in an offhand
discussion on IRC or in an e-mail. I am not a violent person, but the potential
for violence is there given the right circumstances. It is a necessary survival
trait -- to fight, to defend. In contemplating the topic, I offer no judgment
that violence in itself is bad or good. I have opinions about whether or not it is, but it cannot exist without form and content, and that can only be provided by those who use it, or succumb to it, either as instigator or victim. It has its uses, just as peace does, or a hairbrush, whether you use the hairbrush to get tangles out of your hair or to hammer a nail. Granted, violence is an action, a mentality, and a hairbrush is an object. But if I can adjust my perceptions of a hairbrush to make it a hammer, I can adjust my perceptions of violence to see it as an object, a tool, as it is used in fanfic. The why of the tool is the subject of this essay: why is the use of violence so prevalent in fanfic?
For the purpose of this essay, I am primarily taking the stance of the writer. I believe that the reasons why we like to write violence in fanfic and why we read it are not the same, but neither are they mutually exclusive. The quotes used herein (with the exception of Nathan Lane's) were garnered during conversations regarding this essay and are used with permission. I feel I should point out, as well, that of the four people that beta'd this essay for me, (all of whom I adore and have great respect for) two disagreed with me on the basic premise, if not the conclusions I drew. But as a symposium is meant to evoke and provoke thought, my theory stands.
Meredith Lynne said; "I think we like violence in our fanfic and in all our entertainment because it gives us the opportunity to confront our deepest fears in a safe environment."
I think we like violence in our fanfic and in all our entertainment because it gives us the illusion we are confronting our deepest fears in a safe environment. If you lock your doors and windows at night, are you safe in your home, or are you simply succumbing to the *illusion* that you are safe in your home? When you write violence into a story are you exploring it in a safe environment, or does the environment simply allow you to perceive the act as an object? (See hairbrush, above.)
Violence is an obsession of our times. Perhaps it is a predominately American fascination, morbid as it may seem, this romance we have with violence. It is, at best, a co-dependent, dysfunctional relationship. We see violence and abhor it. We see more violence and distance ourselves from it, become immured against it to the point of apathy (as long as it is not aimed at us, focused on us.) Immunized to its ugliness by constant exposure, we can allow ourselves to be fascinated by it without the stomach turning reaction which at one time may have been the most basic cause of our aversion to violence.
No longer hampered by revulsion, we seek to understand it, to deal with it, to make it part of ourselves, so that no future outbreaks can infect us. Like an antibiotic against the fear, we hope that by immunizing ourselves, when violence comes our way -- which it seems it inevitably must -- we will not be devastated by it.
Violence and fanfic seem to go hand in hand. It may be the nature of the source medium, it may be the mechanism writers most use in exploring dark themes far outside the realm of their normal, everyday existence. I do not pretend to speak for everyone. I don't presume to understand even a fraction of why I use it, why I read it, why I argue with myself both for and against its use in my writing -- an argument I am sure to lose, whatever the outcome, because it is a beguiling force, a tantalizing look at something that most people are trained from early on to avoid in all its permutations.
I am not specifically talking about the prevalence of sexual violence (which I may address at another time) in fanfic, but about fanfic violence in general -- the damaging, bruising, cutting, battering, leave-the-character-puking-his-guts-out kind of violence. Or it would leave you puking your guts out if it were happening to you or involved you. At least it should. Right? That's what we are taught by our mothers, should be taught by our mothers, our fathers, our families, our community, our society. It is that division between the true reality of experience and the literary reality of the written word that provides the forum for all kinds of violent expressions.
In the reality of experience, we should abhor violence in all its forms, even at its most justifiable: in self defense, in war, on behalf of a child, on behalf of a weaker person, in defense of those who cannot defend themselves. There are times when it is acceptable, when it can be forgiven, understood, maybe when it is the only answer...when it is necessary. Right? But we still shouldn't like it, embrace it, own it as an intrinsic part of ourselves. Even if it is the forces of good that use violence to subdue the forces of evil, even when the violence in each of us, in our heroes, is released through artificial means like drugs, or possession, the supernatural, or extenuating circumstances, it is still to be reviled and resisted. In discussing this with MacGeorge, she commented, "We are looking, then, for some justification for our fascination with violence in order to assuage our sense of overstepping the boundaries of communal taboos." And I think those communal taboos are the playing fields on which we subdue our own needs for violence within the group.
And yet, the fascination remains. The desire remains to know that loss of control, embrace it, use it, release that violence in all its forms. We see it in the entertainment industry, on television, movies, in books, magazines, the front page, and we buy it, read it, consume it like the newest wonder drug. For those of us who have known personal violence in our lives, sometimes the best, most accessible way to exorcise it is to re-enact it in conversation or prose. For others, it is avoided at all costs because it is too close, too real, too painful to bear for more than a glance.
In fanfic, many times the basis for our prose is inherently violent. The cop shows, the hospital dramas, the fantasy and science fiction that we are inspired by and try to recapture again and again in fiction provide us with the situations of life and death, of violence meeting violence. It is the realm of the hero and the villain, antagonist and protagonist, good and evil. In trying to recapture the emotions such situations evoke, we attempt to translate the personalities and interpersonal dynamics that captured our imagination from an audio-visual medium to a strictly mental-linguistic one.
It is a kind of magic, and done well, it is wondrous. To take what visually makes us flinch, what emotionally makes us cower no matter how brave a front we put up, and be able to evoke a response in a reader is the goal of any writer.
Nothing in our history as a sentient being evokes more of a response than violence. Fight or flee is the textbook response because ultimately violence is about survival. Life or death. Not always in the corporeal sense, but in the life and death of a belief, an idea, a segment of some fundamental underpinning of our personal world view. In ourselves. Am I strong enough, will I be a coward, a bully? Could I inflict harm on another and feel no regret? Could I survive an assault, scarred and battered, but with my head held high? Will I lose myself in the fear or in the anger?
As writers, we can be both the instigator and recipient of violent behavior. As fanfic writers we can be safe in our exploration because, well, the violence is inherent in the source, n'est-ce pas? Highlander is founded on a premise of violence -- the main protagonist survives by the decapitation of others of his kind. In The Sentinel, Jim and Blair stand as those legitimate bastions of good, barricades between the violence of the scum of humankind and the rest of us unsuspecting, normal folk. Star Trek set the good crews of the Enterprise and Voyager and DS-9 between the evil of the universe and us.
I could argue that written violence is like a booster shot for the visual violence we see on the tube every night. I could argue that the exploration of violence in the written word is a safe way to explore our darker sides, to expurgate the tendencies that might overtake us in the day -- that do overtake some of us.
However, what I am arguing is that there is no such thing as safe violence. It's an oxymoron. I am not saying that the use of violence in fanfic is good or bad, only that its appeal is in its lack of safety, its lack of control, its lack of cognizant or rational structure. The rules of combat apply not to make combat safer, but to make it acceptable. In writing violence into our characters, into the situations, we seek not a safe outlet for our own violence but an acceptable outlet. It is also an easy way to evoke a response -- any response -- in a reader.
Again: I think we like violence in our fanfic and in all our entertainment because it gives us the illusion we are confronting our deepest fears in a safe environment.
That stance may offend some. I am, by the body of my work, a writer of violent fiction. What limits are there, I place on myself -- to the edge of what I find I can accept within myself. Acceptance does not imply approval. I can accept within myself the need to see a character terrorized by fear, to be abused and hurt. I can accept within myself the need to be the abuser, to be the bad guy, the character who lacks conscience, who lacks restraint -- who can glory in his lack of societal control, who is the psychopath of tomorrow's headline.
To know a thing is to control a thing. Lori Goldman, with whom I write, said, "Violence can basically distill a character down to his/her essence. You can have a character talk and posture all you/he/she wants but when confronted with a violent/physical situation, the character acts according to his/her beliefs or morals or whatever...not with the shield or mask they would use in 'public.'"
The use of violence pulls all the safeties off. Off the characters, off the writer, removes the masks for the reader. It allows us to examine the violence within us by proxy. We can control it within ourselves because it is our moral choice to do so. Confronted with real violence, we will fight or flee as the situation dictates.
Frequently, the comment regarding "gratuitous violence" will make its way into a discussion. "Violence is fine as long as it isn't gratuitous." Or graphic. Or this, or that, but those are levels of acceptance, too.
Except violence in the real world frequently is gratuitous; it serves little or no purpose, save in its lack of control. Its use is meant to control, in its lack of control, to instill fear in its lack of fear. It can be the adrenaline promoting, feel-no-pain expression of fear that is turned outward. And it becomes uncomfortable for writer and reader alike when it exceeds our personal level of acceptance.
The judgments inflicted on the use of violence in fanfic comes, then, not in its lack of acceptance, but in its level of acceptance. When it is good, when it is bad, when it is well-done or poorly done, when it is done at all, its merit or lack of merit is based on how well the writer controls it.
But that still does not explain the prevalence of violence in fanfic, and not all uses can be blamed on the source medium. For every episode promoting the use of violence as entertainment, there is an episode that entertains without it.
Nathan Lane claimed that there is a lot of anger in comedy. Anger is not an emotion that most people are comfortable with. They will change it into comedy, into indifference -- given the opportunity -- rather than confront it. And anger in itself is merely fear turned outward. It is, again, the battle for control. Which, distilled down to the basics of survival, is all we have: the battle for control, not the control itself. The battle to control our own destinies, our environment, our emotions, the very circumstances of our existence. In fanfic the source medium is generally acceptable, generally accessible. The rules of combat apply -- violence in fanfic is prevalent because...
It is safe.
Wrong. It is prevalent because it feels safe, but its appeal is in its lack of safety on the most basic level -- it is the Wild Hunt, it lacks limits, it hovers on the edge of what we can bear and not feel we have lost some part of ourselves that makes us connect with others.
If it were safe, then no writer would necessarily stop themselves from writing any level of violence. But they do stop. I stop...just shy of where I feel safe, because on the other side of the line, I'm not safe. And since the line exists only in my mind, then it is not safe because the line is illusion. The appeal is in maintaining the illusion.
It does not automatically follow that those of us who write violence, either in passing reference, or in the extreme, will turn feral at some point and lose all restraint. Or that we are inherently violent to begin with, or that the potential for violence within us makes us evil or unfit for society. (I am reminded of the story of Helen Keller, who as a child, blind, deaf, and mute, exhibited extremely violent behavior. But the violence of her behavior was merely an expression of her frustration at being unable to communicate. She was not evil, although in her childhood, she was quite unfit to interact socially.)
But I still believe that what is not safe, what lies beyond the edge of acceptance, is what we strive for and why we write violence into stories that of themselves, within the imagery of words, have no need for detail. The use of a killer who mutilates his victims and displays them could be illustrated in those few words -- yet the need to give some description of the horror and fear the killer's act engenders is still there, either in the need to describe the act or the reaction to the deed. The idea that one partner might strike another in anger or in fear once more presses the idea of what is safe; if you are not safe with your partner, who are you safe with? And if those fears and anxieties can be brought to the surface by the use of words, how much closer then, in our day to day lives, are the fears that we might be victimized by a psychopath, or be struck by a partner, or loved on in a fit of anger?
The rules of combat apply. The violence is real. It is the safety that is the illusion.