“These violent delights have violent ends.” ~ William Shakespeare
“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson
“When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear.” ~ Mark Twain
A few days ago, I was reading one of the blogs I follow. Tracy Krauss writes in the Christian fiction genre, and was writing about just how realistic a writer can be in that field. She spoke of things that you might not otherwise expect to find in the genre, such as cursing, adult situations, and even violence, asking the question… should issues like this be addressed in novels in the genre? Her conclusion was that she would have to be realistic in use of things like swearing, drug use, or other such matters if it served the plot, as long as it’s not gratutious. That’s a risk in a genre where much of the readership would strenuously object to any such use, but as she put it, a mafia don is not going to say “oh darn.”
It got me to thinking of my own solo work, which of course, is a very different genre. Heaven & Hell and the books that will follow are in the counter terrorism genre, and as such are very much rooted in the real world… in a very dark, ugly part of the world. When writing in that genre… or indeed, in other genres, such as horror or sci fi, which can be relentless in terms of awful things happening, where do we draw the line? How graphic and detailed can we be? How far do we as authors go? Those are the questions I’d like to explore today while talking about my own work, and I thought I’d do so along three fronts.
First off, I thought I’d start with sex. Now, now, calm down, no need to get overheated. I bring it up for a good reason. Sex is, of course, a part of the spy genre, has been for a long while now. It’s integral for the signature character of the genre, something that Ian Fleming took into account when he was writing the first adventures of James Bond. And the writers who have come since him have routinely worked sex into plotlines in their own works. Sometimes sex serves as seduction of a source of information. Other times sex is used as a weapon (use your imagination). And from time to time, sex in a spy novel is just about the hero coming home to his doctor wife and getting lucky (this is what Tom Clancy was up to throughout the Jack Ryan books, after all; his hero wasn’t scoring with every woman he met because of the job… he was coming home to his wife, after all).
It doesn’t get overly graphic in the genre, mostly because the plotline needs to move forward. If you’re looking for graphic sex in a novel, head over to the romance and erotica section. Sex is there though, part of the whole in my genre. I’ve used sex as an element in Heaven & Hell, though interestingly, not for my leading characters. While I’ve mentioned the personal life of one character, and while there is a certain chemistry between them, I’ve generally refrained from taking it in a sexual direction for them. At least for the moment. Instead, it’s the villains of the book who are managing to get some of the proverbial horizontal action, so to speak. Again though, there’s a point I stop at, because I don’t need to get overly graphic with sex in this genre. Besides, my brother is adamant that he’ll never read a sex scene written by me.
This brings us to the second matter: language. Personally, I have no issue with coarse language in every day life. I don’t really consider words like hell or damn to be curse words, for example. I do think it’s something best done in moderation, or used sparingly. Too often we see someone on the street using foul language three or four times in every sentence, yelling at someone else (I saw this just the other day, in point of fact), and it leaves us wondering if the walking temper tantrum in question ever learned the slightest manners. Probably not. I have some of the same disdain for standup comedians who lace their routine with nonstop cursing. That’s done merely for shock value, not as their natural way of speaking.
In the spy genre, where you’re writing about the rough end of things, so to speak, you’re writing about characters who will use rough language. It’s natural for people in the field to employ the occasional curse word here and there, both the protagonists and the antagonists. I’ve done that, again in moderation, through the book. It’s actually something that annoyed my father, when he recently read some of the recent narrative during a visit. He’s quite old fashioned in his thinking, and couldn’t get past the thought one character has in referring to a terrorist as a “cold blooded son of a bitch.” It’s accurate, though, for the moment, and for the character, and in this genre, it’s to be expected. And of course, for more serious foul language… well, let’s just say that the most serious curse word in the English language does put in an appearance or two… once during an interrogation, and the next during a gun fight. I wrote it as part of the natural flow of the moment, and not gratuitous.
This brings us to the last element of the equation: violence. Obviously this is integral to the spy and counter-terrorism genre. Heaven & Hell features deaths of civilians early on, assassination, a massive terrorist attack, and a shooting war between two opposing armies. The central event, which I’ve taken to calling the Very Bad Thing (no, I’m not telling), claims the lives of thousands of people. I found when I was writing that moment in time that I kept a certain distance from it. In the aftermath, views of the scene tend to be from the distance. I only briefly use the point of view of firefighters on the scene for the close up, but I see little point in lingering with graphic detail. Another writer might wish to go into explicit detail on the condition of a body, or the way a bullet passes through flesh and bone. Certainly in the film world there are directors who are obsessed with the graphic detail, every gory element of a violent death (Mr. Tarentino, I’m talking about you).
I’m not like that. I think it detracts from the narrative. Still, given the demands of the story, it’s essential to show that it’s happening, to employ it as needed, and to keep moving on with the action. The key, I think, is finding the balance, the point where you’ve shown enough. This applies, in this genre and others, to all three: sex, profanity, and violence. Tip the balance too far in one direction, and you’re just being gratuitous. Tip in the other direction, and you’re not being realistic.