Thursday, January 20, 2011

Violent tendencies?

As I sat down to write this blog post, I was in something of an angry mood for various reasons, which wasn’t really conducive to thinking up something good to write about. But since my thoughts were already turned towards violence (figuratively speaking of course, as I’m not a vicious person), it occurred to me to wonder how much aggression is admissible in a romantic novel?

Obviously, in certain types of romance violence is necessary, especially in sagas and historical novels since life was much harder in the past and the laws brutal. There are villains to defeat (who think nothing of maltreating the main characters in order to achieve their dastardly ends), real battles to be fought, duels to defend the hero’s honour, and sometimes rapes to avenge. Possibly there are evil step-mothers or brothel madams whose goons might use their fists to try and persuade a poor heroine to co-operate. We definitely can’t let them get away with that without giving them their come-uppance. So there are times when we have to pull up our sleeves and describe these things whether we want to or not.

Since my novels are historical and also feature the hero’s point of view to a large extent, I’ve had to write quite a few fight scenes. I suppose it helped that I was a bit of a tom boy when I was little, so participated in my fair share of “fisticuffs” (not to mention the numerous times my brother and I had, er ... slight disagreements), so I didn’t find it difficult to imagine myself in the middle of a brawl. Being a girl, however, I probably mostly fight like one, which as I’ve often been told is not a good thing. No self-respecting hero would resort to pulling his opponent’s hair or raking sharp fingernails down anyone’s cheek, nor would they try and kick them in the groin as a rule. So I had to do a bit of research in order to make my hero’s fighting authentic.

I happen to like films like Die Hard and Indiana Jones where the hero seems to be forever brawling with someone. Not to mention Troy and Gladiator which have superb fight sequences. I’ve also suffered through Rocky I, II and III (I think I managed not to yawn) and the more recent The Expendables, as well as numerous other such testosterone-fuelled yarns. And although a lot of these feature the extreme (over?)use of machine guns and other weapons, the heroes do use their fists as well which is where they are invaluable to me. In fact, in my new favourite film Prince of Persia, Prince Dastan appears to regard taking part in a street fight as fun – a very male viewpoint if ever there was one! And one we have to remember if we’re going to make our heroes believable.

That’s all very well on film, but in real life I’d hate to witness something like that. Faced with actual brutality I would be horrified and I’m sure my legs would turn to jelly. I doubt I’d fight back unless it was a matter of life and death. But writing about it doesn’t seem so bad - thank goodness for imagination!

The question of how much violence to include, however, is one that I’ve had to consider quite a lot. My next novel is set in 17th century Japan, and my research into the period made me realise that the samurai warlords could be very ruthless indeed. Their swords (the longer katana and shorter wakizashi) were kept razor-sharp and I read about instances when a master would test the sharpness of his blade by cutting off the head of the nearest servant. Would it be ok to include such a detail in a romantic novel, in the interests of authenticity? Possibly, but I decided against it as I’d rather not try and describe it. And after all, I want to entertain my readers, not turn their stomachs (apologies if I’ve just done that anyway!), and this seemed to me like a random act of violence which had no real purpose. Punishing a villain severely would be a different matter though. I would definitely have no scruples about making him suffer a nasty death and hopefully the readers would find that acceptable too.

What do you think? How much violence is justified/enough? Where would you draw the line? And how do you go about writing fight scenes – by imagining them yourself, or by enlisting the help of male relatives/friends?

Please come back on Sunday to hear from Liz


  1. What worries me is the tendency in some novels for the heroine to be violent towards the hero. Face slapping, punches, and I'm not talking self-defence but just 'I'm annoyed' reactions. If the roles were reversed it wouldn't look so good, would it? So why do heroines feel the need to get slappy?

  2. I can see the need to have fight scenes in the historicals you write, Christina, but when I read a book with a fight scene I usually skim right over it, and just take in enough to know who came out victorious.

    I think in modern day stories it is easier to get by without any violence. I'm a great one for solving problems without violence if it can be done. I lose a lot of respect for characters that get into brawls, because in real life I'd find it unacceptable.

    And I agree with Jane about heroines slapping or punching when they get mad at the hero - just because she's a girl doesn't make it any more acceptable.

  3. You're right, Jane, I always get cross with heroines who slap the hero too! Resolving arguments with violence is never a good idea, unless you're the hero and the villain is threatening you with a knife or something.

    I like your way of reading fight scenes, Sofie :)

    Thanks for your comments!