Dec 02 2011

Writing More Realistic Violence

Published by at 12:25 am under Comic Book Teams,Noir,Realism

Here are some points I took away from this article on violence.

1. Very few people are actually prepared for a life-or-death, organ-stabbing fight.  “Herein lies a crucial distinction between traditional martial arts and realistic self-defense: Most martial artists train for a ‘fight.’ Opponents assume ready stances, just out of each other’s range, and then practice various techniques or spar (engage in controlled fighting). This does not simulate real violence. It doesn’t prepare you to respond effectively to a sudden attack, in which you have been hit before you even knew you were threatened, and it doesn’t teach you to strike preemptively, without telegraphing your moves, once you have determined that an attack is imminent.”


2. All other things being equal, I would imagine someone that’s pretty mild-mannered and hasn’t been in many fights would probably have quite a learning curve as a superhero.  Most violent criminals (e.g. supervillains!) are used to violence that most people could not fathom.  In a savage fight, it is very possible that a superhero’s mental/moral hesitations and inhibitions and unfamiliarity with violence could be disastrous.  Superhero organizations might want to have new recruits fight nonpowered criminals in relatively low-stakes cases until it looks like they might be mentally and physically hard enough to survive a psychotic killer like Mr. Freeze or a death camp survivor that mentally ripped a foe’s tooth out of his mouth… back when he was a protagonist.  And, let’s be honest, it’s not likely that every would-be superhero can successfully make that transition.  (If you’re writing a larger organization like the Justice League, what does the group do about heroes that are so ill-suited for combat they will probably get themselves killed?  For example, maybe some get retrained as crime-solvers and partnered with ace combatants and maybe others get let go and maybe still more take on important support roles like medic or scientist or whatever that might involve some exposure to violence but aren’t as intense as actually being a combatant).


3. Although I think the author discounts the potential benefits of bravery, I agree it definitely has potential costs.  I don’t think we see very much of that in most superhero stories.  For example, violence for Spider-Man is sort of Disney-fied–virtually the only permanent costs of violence (Uncle Ben’s death) are caused by not being brave.   For most superheroes, I think the violence is heavily romanticized.  Being a superhero is more or less fun and games except when a (usually secondary) character dies and, let’s face it, he will probably come back anyway.  On the other hand, I personally don’t enjoy deep-R violence and would feel uncomfortable including it in something primarily meant as entertainment.  (For example, in Kickass, a gangster gets crushed in a car-compactor–it’s decidedly unpleasant and I’m sort of annoyed it was a laugh-line for the audience).


4.  It might be dramatic to make a hero choose between his pride and other goals.  For example, if 3+ muggers have guns drawn on Bruce Wayne, it’d be pretty banal for Wayne to flawlessly disarm the criminals and walk away completely unscathed–pretty much every superhero would do the same in that situation.  It might be more interesting if the character allowed himself to be robbed, walked away and got his revenge later.  How much is his pride worth?  Alternately, if the character does decide that his pride is worth risking serious physical injury and/or revealing that he has superpowers, have him pay something for it.  (For example, the first sign to Gary that something is not right about his coworker Dr. Mallow is that Gary witnesses several men rob Dr. Mallow, taking among other things a cherished personal memento.  Over the next several weeks, all of the assailants end up in mysterious accidents and the good doctor has his memento back.  Mallow could have just let it go, but trying to protect his property even after the fact bears a cost for him).

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Writing More Realistic Violence”

  1. Contra Gloveon 02 Dec 2011 at 5:21 pm

    If you want to read about violence, I highly recommend Marc “Animal” MacYoung’s website, “No Nonsense Self Defense.” He tackles a lot of myths about crime and violence head-on. It has certainly informed how I write violence in my fiction.

    Also, #3, especially the part about not including horrific violence in something meant mostly as entertainment, is very good advice. It’s why games like Pokémon and Sakura Wars work. Just as rape darkens the tone of the story, gruesome acts of violence (even against villains) does the exact same thing.

  2. Indigoon 02 Dec 2011 at 5:22 pm

    My MC for my comic-Indigo-is very unprepared to be a superhero in that she’s never been exposed to violence and has a hard time fathoming inflicting pain on another human being; not to mention she doesn’t even know basic self defense. So needless to say, she gets her butt kicked quite a lot in the beginning, which adds to her uncertainty about being a superhero in the first place. Her main driving factor is to find her best friend who went missing after their apartment building caught fire and burned down. So this article definitely describes what I’m trying to accomplish with my character-namely, violence doesn’t come naturally for a superhero.

  3. D J Harrisonon 03 Dec 2011 at 5:31 am

    Which make me wonder if any problems are solved by violence. OK, it’s exciting and makes for a lively read, but beating the baddies to a pulp doesn’t go anywhere the root of the problem.
    Fighting for your life when attacked is an exercise in disengagement at the earliest opportunity. Any self defence expert will tell you that being able to run faster than your assailant is pretty well the best attribute you can have, as long as you can escape from their clutches.
    Personally, I have found being hit provokes only the need to nurse my wounds, feel sorry for myself and fantasise how things might have been different if I’d been carrying my gun/baseball bat/ crowbar/ and wearing full body armour.
    Plot wise, bringing the baddie down in a fist fight has been done to death.

  4. CCOlsonon 03 Dec 2011 at 12:23 pm

    There are many problems solved by violence, just like there are many problems solved by Phillips-head screwdrivers. Obviously, there are a lot more problems solved by screwdrivers, but I hope you get the analogy. I think the problem with some superhero stories is how violence can end up being the catch-all solution to every problem.

    Before I go further, I will first change the term in play from violence to force. The word violence immediately implies that the action taken was unjust or somehow wrong. Force, or lethal force, just means some type of potentially damaging physical action which may have been justified.

    Force is very useful for quickly ending a situation that is immediately threatening the lives of those present. For example, an armed robbery at a stop-and-rob. In this case, wrapping an arm around the gunman’s neck and directing his weapon at the ceiling until he loses consciousness, or alternatively snapping a hand into his throat and disarming him while he tries desperately to breath, will ensure that no one but him is harmed. As the gunman is the one breaking the law and threatening the lives of others, his personal safety is lowest on the priority list, though it is still on there. Of course, this is only useful if the person disarming the gunman can do so quickly and decisively. There are people who could manage this well, and people who would flub it up. A potential hero should know where they rate on that continuum before intervening, especially as most robbers will happily run away without firing a shot once they get the cash.

    This is a good situation for showing your hero’s character and motivation by how they respond, as it’s very much a judgement call what one does.

    -If your hero is young and trying to prove himself he could barge in and get someone killed by provoking the gunman to open fire.

    -If your hero is more experienced he could move in quietly, sneak up on the gunman and disarm him with a quick, overwhelming attack.

    -If your hero is a thinker he might eye the gunman from concealment, figure out that its just some young kid who looks nervous as hell and doesn’t really want to shoot the clerk, and wait for him to come outside where there isn’t anyone to get hit by stray bullets. Then he can catch him, disarm him, and return the money.

    -If your hero doesn’t really care, perhaps he’ll just go somewhere else for his late night Mountain Dew fix.

    -If your hero is a cop, then she has a whole other set of motivations, including training, protocol, desire to protect the clerk versus mere duty to apprehend the criminal, etc.

    A situation where the use of force, especially lethal force, would be much more justified is a hostage situation where negotiation has broken down. At this point, with a hostage taker holding a gun to the head of a hostage, a precise rifle shot to the eye of the hostage taker will end the situation without any harm coming to the hostage.

    On the cold, brutal math side this is a great solution for society, as the situation comes to an end quickly, there is no trial to deal with just a lot of paperwork, a productive member of society returns to work unharmed and there is one less violent criminal/terrorist on the street. Of course, there are moral questions. The act of using lethal force to interdict a murder is justified. The act of using lethal force to skip a trial and save money, not so much. A legally acceptable act may still be morally wrong because of intent or strict personal beliefs.

    So, again, force can solve specific problems. Sometimes it is the only thing that can solve a specific problem. Psychotic murderers generally aren’t stopped by anything else. If psychotic murderers are what you keep having a problem with, then force is one of your best tools. However, if armed robberies are what you keep having a problem with, then force is just a stopgap and the real solution lies with changing something about how your society is structured.

    Changing focus, consider what type of situation your hero is facing and whether or not the term “self-defense” applies.

    As a concealed carrier, I had to learn about the rules governing self-defense and I’ve put more reading and thought into it since then. (note that all of what I say after this is from an American perspective. I know nothing about the laws and case law in other countries, only what I read and was told by self-defense trainers about the situation here where I live.)

    If your hero is out saving people effectively as a civilian do-gooder then generally he’s operating via the “alter-ego” self-defense rule. This basically means that if the victim would have a right to defend themselves in the eyes of the law, then anyone witnessing the attack can step in and exercise those rights on the victim’s behalf. As noted in the article, someone who provokes a fight does not have a right to defend themselves. Someone walking along the street who gets jumped and beaten by muggers does.

    Also, there is the term “reasonable force” or “justifiable force”. This asks whether the person defending responded at an appropriate level or escalated.

    So, if you’re a guy walking down the street and another guy your size threatens to beat you with his fist, you’re not necessarily allowed to pull a gun on him and shoot him. That is not justifiable force, as your life was only marginally threatened. Of course, if you pull the gun and tell him to get lost without shooting you might get away with it depending on what the cops are like in your area, but you should still report the incident so the criminal doesn’t report it first as “some nutjob pulled a gun on me”.

    If you’re an average sized woman walking down the street and an average sized man threatens you with his bare hands, you’re probably good to pull a gun on him and shoot him if he moves in. At least in America courts generally side with the woman in self-defense cases. Also, just on the basis of average muscle strength, an average sized man poses a deadly threat to an average sized woman.

    If you’re a guy walking down the street and three guys jump out and threaten your life, then we’re getting closer to firearm territory. If one of them pulls a knife, have at it.

    The key phrase that I was taught is “I was afraid for my life.” Someone exercising self-defense with lethal force should be able to reasonably say this.

    These same things all apply to the hero defending the victim. She should be able to say “I was afraid for the person’s life” before she uses lethal force. She should also know whether or not the victim started the fight, and if he did, the hero needs to be very careful how she intervenes (if she intervenes at all). She should also respond with a reasonable level of force. Burning an unarmed thug to a crisp to stop a beating is not reasonable force. Burning a thug’s hand to make him drop a knife may be.

    On a related note, civilians ARE actually allowed to make arrests in many states and it is technically illegal in many states (South Carolina at least) for someone to ignore any lawful arrest. I was taught that this is something I should forget about and that the best idea if I don’t shoot an attacker is to get them to drop their weapon and run away, then get to a safe location and call the police. Still, for your fictional hero, this is a law that might actually exist in his area. Citizen’s arrests can be legit.

    Changing focus again, if your hero is a cop or is out to apprehend criminals as a vigilante or bounty-hunter (that’s a fun one) then the use of force is NOT self-defense.

    For a cop, they often have the right to use necessary force to stop a violent felon from escaping. This means if they just saw a man commit a murder and reasonably believe he is a threat to others they can shoot him IN THE BACK while he’s running away. Police will also pre-emptively use force (not lethal force) to take down people they think are intending to put up a fight. Having something that you’re pretty sure won’t leave any permanent injuries (like pepper spray or a tazer) can make you a little more free with your use of force in mastering a situation.

    An official Superhero apprehending a super-criminal known to be violent might just lead with overwhelming force and hope to come through in the review process.

    Anyway, I could say more, but I have to get to other work. For an intriguing, and brutal, take on self defense try these people: I’ve read their book and watched some of their dvd’s. Their version of self-defense involves avoiding trouble if at all possible, then, if left with no other choice, taking charge of the situation by repeatedly causing injury to your attacker. This means taking parts of your attacker’s body and making them not work right anymore, then continuing to do so until you feel you can safely walk away.

  5. B. McKenzieon 03 Dec 2011 at 1:05 pm

    “If your hero is a thinker he might eye the gunman from concealment, figure out that its just some young kid who looks nervous as hell and doesn’t really want to shoot the clerk, and wait for him to come outside…” I think that’s generally sound, but if he’s run into this scenario a few times, it’s possible that somebody inside will do something crazy like reaching for a weapon. In that case, the hero may end up regretting his decision to wait outside.

    I think it’s important to emphasize that, especially from the police’s perspective, even precise use of violence against a hostage-taker is a last resort after all attempts at negotiation have failed.

    1) In the heat of the moment, there’s a chance that the sharpshooter might miss completely or hit a bystander (probably the hostage). If there are multiple hostage-takers, the risks increase dramatically.

    2) You’re right that a dead criminal wouldn’t need a trial, BUT the legal battle will move to civil court instead. Families of criminals (particularly the mentally imbalanced) and/or injured/killed hostages have sued police departments over whether the police exhausted every option before dangerously escalating the situation by authorizing violence. If the decision was made for nontactical reasons (like “this has turned into a media fiasco–the mayor will fire all of us if this goes on any longer” or “maintaining this standoff is too expensive”), then I would guess that the lawsuit will probably succeed. (Valid reasons: “The hostage-taker did something that suggested he was imminently going to harm the hostages or police,” but note that a threat like “I’m going to kill a hostage in X hours unless my demands are met” might NOT be sufficient there–almost every deadline passes without hostages getting harmed, according to Playing for Time.

    For more details on hostage situations, I’d recommend seeing Stalling for Time and my article Hostage Situations from the Police’s Perspective.

  6. CCOlsonon 03 Dec 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Back on the stop-and-rob situation, I have a bit of a personal perspective on that one after going through a training-simulation at a pistol training seminar. This was a two-day defensive pistol course run by John Farnham (of Defense Training International, not the singer) and mostly attended by local cops, federal cops and local and federal instructors.

    During this seminar we put away the live guns for a while and did some scenario drills with semi-automatic airsoft pistols (the expensive gas powered kind with slides that actually blow back when they’re fired). One of the scenarios was the classic stop-and-rob setup with two robbers (one with an airsoft gun, the other with a knife) and an unarmed clerk behind the counter.

    I came into the situation, eyed it, moved carefully so that I could shoot at the gunman from about 45-degrees behind his right shoulder (figuring it would be hard for him to spin that far and get a bead on me quickly), a position that still kept the clerk safely out of my line of fire and kept the knife wielder close enough to it to keep him covered.

    Then I yelled “Drop the weapon!”

    I have never seen someone spin and fire so fast. I thought I had the drop on the gunman, but he ended up opening fire at the same moment I did.

    I still had the advantage of careful aim. I landed three shots right into his chest going up toward his face.

    However, he sent three shots straight into my left forearm, close to the elbow joint.

    I remember thinking in that long, vivid, adrenaline filled moment: “I just lost my left arm.”

    That changed my perspective. Yes I technically “won” that exchange, but if it had been real I would have had a stump at my left side for the rest of my life. I don’t really consider that a victory when the clerk probably wasn’t even in that much danger in the first place.

    After much consideration I came up with

    1. Call the cops and wait outside, watching/taking pictures.

    2. Go in and get behind COVER (not concealment) and issue a challenge. I just realized that the door chime on most quik-e-marts would make this a very risky proposition.

    3. Walk in and shoot the gunman in the head. Yes, this is legal, at least in South Carolina. The cashier would have every right to do it, so I do as well. However, the legal bills from a civil trial could be devastating.

    I’m still not certain what I would do if really faced with that scenario, but I know that standing in the open and shouting “drop the weapon” is not one of them.

  7. Elecon 14 Jun 2013 at 9:20 pm

    With my story, my main character doesn’t have that much of a problem using extreme violence almost immediately after he becomes a superhero due to his upbringing in a brutal orphanage. Does this sound reasonable?

  8. Nayanon 14 Jun 2013 at 10:26 pm

    Sometimes violence plays a key role in developing a character. I think without violence and foul words, Hit Girl would not have been this interesting.

  9. Ujjwal bhargavon 22 Apr 2019 at 1:27 am

    Hey B mac I took your last advice to work on one story at a time and now I’m working but here is a bit confusion related to an action scene where my oc fights several terrorists in his house without weapons
    Here’s the narration ,suggest your views about it
    Aditya has packed up everything he’d need to crack the case now he had to reach military base asap .
    He remembered the warning by a mysterious man that his enemies are behind him so he had to work fast
    ” Oh hell they are here I’ve to move ”
    Aditya ran towards the chimney and burned the additional papers
    Putting his bag he ran towards the kitchen window
    ” oh shit I’m stuck ”
    He saw several men in ninja like dressing standing there
    ” give us the proof ”
    One of the men said
    Aditya sighed “this is not going to end well ”
    The man jumped on him Aditya moved to a side and put the ninja’s face inside oven
    He jumped up as a sword sliced behind his leg
    A ninja attacked from back with his bayonet but Aditya’s fast reflexes saved him he laid down resulting in two ninjas stabing
    two more jumped from the roof on Aditya making him fall on a table
    ” ouch this hurts , but you will pay for that ”
    Aditya took the knife and threw it with such accuracy that one hninja had his head opened

    ” I dont have time , I should move ”
    Aditya ran forward like a rugby player
    Knocking out the ninjas and started his bike
    That’s it
    I’ve to write after this
    Actually it’s a comic so I didnt really cared about writing much
    According to the scenes please suggest me
    And please tell how it actually sounds
    Also I read your Taxman must die
    It’s awesome

  10. B. McKenzieon 22 Apr 2019 at 7:28 pm

    Some ideas here:

    –This isn’t a major issue for a first draft, but after you’ve completed a draft (and only then!) I’d recommend taking a look at smoother transitions between and within scenes. For example, in this scene, there are probably smoother ways to transition into danger/action than having him remember a warning seconds before ninjas storm his house. One other option which comes to mind would be drawing out the tension a bit longer (e.g. the time it takes him to realize that he’s not alone, the time it takes him to begin throwing together a plan, etc). But definitely don’t worry about this until the first draft is complete — until the first draft is complete, rewriting scene transitions is like painting an elevator before the building is complete.

    –Less of an issue if you see this going in a comic book direction, but if this were a novel, I’d recommend taking a look at atmospherics (e.g. how you build out the setting/location and mood, how you use sensory imagery, etc). For example, if you chose a chaotic atmosphere for this scene, you could build a more cramped feel to the home and/or pots/pans flying everywhere in the melee and/or furniture breaking, the whish of the sword flying past his face as he dodges, etc.

    –As you write additional chapters, it may help to incorporate more character-distinctive moments. For example, if Deadpool or Wolverine or TMD’s Gain or Batman got ambushed at their house, I think the writer has room to take it in different directions even though character goals and tools would be somewhat similar. A more stealth-minded character like Batman might quickly disable the lights or otherwise disorient his enemies… Wolverine or Gain might go on the hunt, possibly with traps or other tactics to encourage the enemy to split into smaller groups that can be ambushed more easily, and I’d try to work in something memorably strange or impressive for Gain. Deadpool takes that to the next level, where his fights are tactically not very interesting (usually bumrushing waves of enemies) and mainly an opportunity for him to do wacky and memorable things besides just winning a fight. For example, the scene where he spelled out FRANCIS with the bodies of his enemies was darkly inspired, and there aren’t 3 other superheroes that could have pulled that off with any degree of humor.

    –The lines of speech from the main character might not be necessary here.

    –I don’t think any of the assailants get more than 1-2 lines of description, they each get dispatched pretty much instantly. It might help to consider giving one a bigger opportunity to try to do something.

    –I think the melee combat works out much better than ranged combat would have. (In particular, I think guns tend to work out poorly in combat scenes). Even though I’m skeptical of guns in action scenes (particularly in novels), I’d recommend checking out Point of Impact for a really well-polished and well-paced approach to action in general. In particular, the scene where a character breaks into a police-occupied morgue. (However, for 99% of authors, I do NOT recommend POI’s amorous obsession to weapon details. Versimilitude is cool when people can make it interesting and plot-relevant, but POI is a rare perfect alignment of author/character/plot/weapons obsession).

  11. Ujjwal bhargavon 23 Apr 2019 at 5:16 am

    Thanks for suggestions
    It helped me a lot
    I’m thinking that I’ll use your idea of turning the light off it sounds pretty good

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