One famous maxim about writing is “Don’t kill the dog”, its premise being readers will tolerate a lot, but killing a beloved pet is beyond the pale—you risk losing your readers who can forgive a lot, but not that. Of course, rules are made to be broken if there is a good enough reason. Old Yeller and John Wick both kill the dog. John Wick’s story has to justify the murder and mayhem that ensues because a horrible injustice was done to him and his dog, Daisy. This is how we know what bad people John is up against so anything he does is justified (and they are trying to kill him as well, so, self defense). It may be cheap and cheesy short hand, but it gets the job done. Old Yeller, like so many children’s books, is trying to teach kids a lesson that is good for them. I abandoned children’s books from an early age because of the “lessons.” I asked myself, incredulous, the Little Princess is supposed to suck up all the abuse she got when she was suddenly poor, then all was forgiven when she was rich again? I don’t think so.
Children’s literature disgusted my grade-school self, so I turned to murder mysteries. Death usually happened early and off-stage. The rest of the story was about catching the bad guy(s) (usually through cleverness and perseverance) and dispensing justice. I didn’t need those depressing children’s books. I learned my “good for you lessons” from “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. The bad guys may not always have been caught by the authorities, but the universe had a way of evening things up. One way or another, justice came and no dogs were harmed.
Beyond avoiding killing the beloved pet, how authors write about death and violence depends on the genre. The mysteries I was reading when I was a child were mostly “cozies” with characters like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey. But not all mysteries are cozies, and I have enjoyed gritty novels, films, and television programs as well. These can get extremely violent, and the morality sometimes is ambiguous. No one would describe the writing of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or Thomas Harris as cozies. True crime can be the most violent of all genres, sometimes with little or no justification for the violence, but hopefully, because the crime has been discovered, solved, and written about, justice was finally served. In the end, most readers and viewers want some sort of justice, even if it is the Twilight Zone kind.
You may recall I’m a fan of horror fiction. Once upon a time, a lot of the violence in horror was fantastical and often had some moral basis underlying it. Fairly stern censorship also limited the depiction of violence during certain eras, but a sub-genre of horror has arisen in the last decades that is increasingly violent. Though “classic” horror still persists, non-human monsters and psychological thrills have in many cases given way to slashers and gore—who dies and how can be pretty much no holds barred.
Our views on violence have changed over time, and our attitudes are affected by the context. How would you write this story? A man slaps another man in a very public setting to defend his wife’s honor. At a certain time and in a certain place, this would demand a duel. In a tragedy, the loyal husband would be killed or maimed. A comedy, a mystery, a romance, a horror story would likely all handle the situation and its outcome differently. In real life, Will Smith gets shunned, and Chris Rock gets sold-out audiences. Assaulting someone in public is not acceptable, we say, suggesting nowadays we have a lower tolerance for violence in real life than in fiction or in the past. But do we?
A man claims self defense, and is free to walk the streets after killing someone. If the man “in fear for his life” is a White police officer and the “threat” is an unarmed Black man, how do we feel about that? How do we read it? How do we write it? Or if a man has a permit for his gun, is startled awake by yelling men crashing into an apartment, and reaches for his gun, is he standing his ground and defending himself? And if the intruders turn out to be cops with a no-knock warrant and possibly the wrong apartment, is that different? Is it a horror story, a tragedy, or an extremely dark comedy? Does race, gender, nationality, social status of the victim or the cops make a difference? Should it? I image how you read it and write it, may very much depend on your personal experience.
If you have a friend or relative who has been the victim of violence, or you yourself have been victimized, you might respond differently to a fictionalized account of an incident that resembles your own. If it’s personal, all abstraction is gone—this was real, this happened to me, and I’m not detached, I’m not okay with it.
How realistic is the violence in modern fiction? How realistic should it be? A convenient fictional device is to hit someone over the head to render them unconscious, removing them from the action but not killing them. In reality, this kind of attack can lead to permanent brain damage or even death. In the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, Stephen King describes a beating that renders a man permanently crippled. This is entirely possible. People who are violently attacked don’t usually jump right back up and carry on as though nothing has happened. Few authors describe the true toll of violence on the body and the mind.
Writers are told there can be no story without conflict. One quick and easy route to conflict can be a fight and a body count. The people who die may become ciphers, not real, not important except to show the prowess of the one killing them. In the real world, dead people have families and friends who mourn them. I have long thought that if more stories told about the aftermath of violence, the emergency rooms and months or perhaps years of physical therapy a victim might endure, it might seem less attractive to those who try to emulate their fictional heroes or anti-heroes by assaulting others. The quiet scene of the family at the grave side does little to show how damaged a death leaves family and friends. Yet for all the discomfort and reluctance authors (and perhaps their publishers) may feel, some stories have addressed the aftermath of death—its effect on those left behind, the ones truly grieving and feeling all the pain. Some novels and memoirs deal honestly with the pain of loss. Do we really want to read about this? Isn’t it painful and uncomfortable? Should it be?
I wonder how we will write the violence of the war in Ukraine. The Russian soldiers have been told a story—that Nazi’s are committing genocide against Russian-speaking people—so any violence they commit is justified. But even if they believe this, how could anything justify the torture, rape, execution of non-combatants, the indiscriminate deaths of children, pregnant women, and old people? Even animals are not safe from the violence. Ukrainian cows have been shot dead, in one instance while they stood in their stanchions waiting to be milked. I doubt there is any evidence that they were Nazi cows. Once violence is unleashed, it is often hard to contain. The Russian soldiers seem to have lost sight of what it is they are trying to accomplish, unless the death of every living thing in Ukraine is their true goal.
I fear violence and death casually depicted in fiction may desensitize people and should be used carefully, yet truthful depictions are required to ground a story in the sometimes grim realities of the world. Storytellers have a responsibility in how they portray those realities. I believe we must write honestly about the consequences of violence, the harm that can be inflicted, mental as well as physical. One of the things that makes Stephen King a great horror writer is that in as little as a paragraph he can make you care about a character so when he kills off that person in the next paragraph, you are horrified. And we should be horrified when someone is killed by violence. Anyone. Not just the dog.
Image: Bourbon, a dog who is very much alive. By Laurie Jackson-Prater.