On Facebook, yesterday, reader and friend Stan Wagenaar asked the following question: “Violence in adventure fiction. Now I personally enjoy my violence in large, bloody doses. As long as it’s well written and not ridiculously gratuitous. Howard wrote much of his violent action in a beautiful, poetic way. [Your] action is equally excellent in [your] fiction. Do you get flak from some readers/editors? How do you feel about violence in your work?” I thought the answer warranted a post of its own.
The type of fiction I write is, of course, often centered around large-scale acts of violence: wars and invasions and raids and such; it’s also home to smaller scale acts: Old Testament vengeance where an eye gets you an eye, duels, assassination, even outright murder. I am not uncomfortable with any of this in fiction. A fight scene can be lyrical and poetic, or it can be brutal and jarring. The point of it in prose, though, is to punctuate the drama. Fight sequences can carry a great deal of dramatic freight for the writer, as set-pieces to move the plot or book-ends to emphasize a relationship or tapestries that decorate the stage and serve as a backdrop for the “smaller” drama of character interaction.
A good fight scene can shed light on a character. In the first chapters of A Gathering of Ravens, Grimnir is an unrepentant prick; he is the stereotypical Orc: vile, profane, full of hatreds and prejudices, given to murder when it suits him. But there is a scene around page 42 where he starts to exhibit a bit more depth: the fight between him and Hrolf Asgrimm’s son:
Snow swirled, flecking the faces of the dead. Grimnir’s chest rose and fell; his breath steamed in the frigid morning air. He tossed the axe aside. His clawed hand flexed around the hilt of his seax. Grimnir glared sidelong at Hrolf Asgrimm’s son.
“She said run, you wretched kneeler.”
Lips curling in a snarl of hate, Hrolf shoved Étaín away. He reached up and tugged a small cross of hammered silver from beneath his tunic. Hrolf snapped the chain and slung the talisman at Étaín’s feet. “Keep your prayers, witch,” he said, and slowly backed away from her.
Hrolf and Grimnir circled the glade, two wolves squaring off, fighting for territory, for dominance. “I know what you are, skraelingr!”
“And still you stand,” Grimnir hissed. “You’ve got stones, old fool!”
“The skein of my life is woven. Why run? So I can die with your steel in my back like a craven?” Hrolf hawked and spat. “For too long I have been blinded by the false promises of the White Christ! What use do I have for redemption? I want an end to make the Valkyries weep! You will give it to me?”
Étaín saw a grudging respect in Grimnir’s feral red eyes. He stopped circling. “Call them.”
“Odin!” Hrolf Asgrimm’s son raised his sword aloft. “Look here, Allfather! Send out your high-hearted maidens and let them choose which of us will live to fight another day! I offer my life, if you want it!”
A gust of wind rattled the few leaves left on the trees, driving eddies of snow before it; away in the north came the dull rumble of thunder, while in the east the heavens gleamed with golden light. “The Son of Man shall send his angels,” Étaín muttered at the sight of it, quoting the Gospel. “And they shall gather.”
Grimnir cocked his head, as though hearing something beyond mortal reckoning. “They come,” he said, teeth bared. “They come to collect their bounty.”
And suddenly, the wolves surged together. Étaín looked on, transfixed; she expected to see Hrolf’s head bouncing over to land at her feet, but the old Dane matched Grimnir stroke for stroke. Sword rasped on seax. Breath whuffed. Feet stamped. Whirl and parry, strike and lunge. It was like watching two dancers who were masters of their art.
But Grimnir’s iron endurance fixed the ending of the fight. The old Dane knew it, too. He dredged deep and put every last ounce of his flagging strength into a sweeping blow that could have cleft the skull of an ox; Grimnir ducked it by a hair’s breadth, and with a cry of triumph he buried his blade up to the hilt in the ribs of Hrolf Asgrimm’s son. Thunder reverberated; the light in the east vanished.
The man coughed, a red froth staining his lips. He turned from Grimnir and took a handful of steps in the direction of his slain kinsmen, his sword trailing him. He clutched its hilt in a death grip.
Hrolf raised his face to the lowering sky . . . and laughed.
Étaín wanted to rush to the old man’s side, to ease his passing and beg his forgiveness, but Grimnir waved her away. She looked on as he caught Hrolf’s swaying body and eased him to the ground.
“I see them,” Hrolf muttered, his beard clotted with gore. “The Choosers of the Slain. They . . . They drive the c-cross-bearers before them. We will meet again, skraelingr.”
“Aye, Dane. We will trade blows again, at the Breaking of the World,” Grimnir replied. And with a savage twist, he drove the tip of his seax into Hrolf Asgrimm’s son’s heart and ripped it free.
I added emphasis in bold. This was the first time we get a look at the creature beneath the Orc exterior, and it’s part and parcel with the fight scene. Grimnir’s people are steeped in violence, but he recognizes in Hrolf the “battle-spirit” of the ancient Danes and it serves to mitigate Grimnir’s dickish behavior. He sees Hrolf as an equal, rather than as mere sword-fodder.
I enjoy writing good action sequences. Especially those that can do more than showcase my choreography or place my vocabulary on exhibit. No, like any part of a novel, the action needs must serve as more than just action. Like dialogue, it is a vehicle for displaying character, and a road upon which the plot can travel.
Most readers give me no flak over the violence (some have, but I imagine what I write wasn’t what they normally read), and my editor only gives me flak if the scene is badly written.