Out-Brutalling the Last Guy: “Grim and gritty, yes … but make sure it’s doing some honest work” by K.V. Johansen

3 Nov

I’ve written some reasonably grim stuff. The hero of Blackdog does tend to go for the throat on the battlefield and the assassin hero in my forthcoming series, Marakand, has a past that is decidedly Not Nice (his present just gets worse). Violence, horror, fear, pain, death — these are all part of epic fantasy, which almost by definition is going to deal with war at some point along the way and will certainly throw its characters into nasty situations, both as active doers of deeds and as suffering victims.

Sometimes detailed physical description is what you need to do what the story needs done. Sometimes it isn’t. When it is, the detailed physical description alone shouldn’t be the point of the exercise. I was talking about this just last night with the Spouse, and then, while procrastinating on Twitter this morning, I wandered into a conversation with Juliet E. McKenna and Tom Lloyd that touched on the same ideas. This led me to wonder if, as we see the increased brutality inflicted in books praised as some kind of standard that is supposed to be achieved, we fantasy writers don’t sometimes get the feeling that we’d better raise the stakes — we’ve got to out-brutal the last guy if we’re going to be respected. “I’ve got to be more violent, more graphic, inflict more horrors, or I’m not going to be taken seriously.”

Or does it?

Or does it?


Maybe sometimes we even forget that for the violence to have any meaning, in a story-sense, that darkness has to be balanced with glimpses of light; there’s no point to all the suffering and misery if some of the characters don’t have a reason to endure it, some hope of survival or belief that what they are doing is going to better their lives or someone else’s, change something, save something. (This doesn’t mean it won’t end in tragedy and failure for them, or even for their world, and all be futile in the end, but if they don’t have a hope of it being otherwise, why go on?)

Anyway, the problem with emphasis on the literary virtue of horrors in graphic detail is that brutality is desensitizing. It may be shocking and powerful the first time you read it, but it loses its impact when overused. You then have to be even more brutal the next time to grab the reader’s attention, because they’ve read descriptions of a disemboweling before. (Sudden cringe, oh, damn, just realized what was about to happen in the chapter I was going to begin before I was sidetracked onto writing this post … how ironic.) And how many ways can you describe such a thing in intimate detail anyway before it becomes as hackneyed as the ‘muscular thighs’ in those skin-tight Regency romance breeches or the thrusting and/or throbbing ‘manhoods’ in another subset of the romance genre? We have to step back and ask:  am I doing this because the story needs it, or because I think that’s how it has to be done these days? Is it doing real work in the story, pulling its weight, or is it — oozy, gory, stinking as it may be — only clutter, the pink sparkles to catch the five-year-old’s eye and distract from the cheap plastic beneath? When the screaming begins and the guts spill, when Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out, the reader needs to feel it matters. Sometimes the best way to make that happen is not to colour it all in.

The obligatory Joe Abercrombie book cover...

The obligatory Joe Abercrombie book cover…

With the centenary of 1914 on the horizon and November 11th approaching, it’s good to remember that yes, we don’t want to gild over the violence and brutality of war to create some appallingly appealing glorious golden image of courtly warriors far removed from blood and mud and pain and lingering, obscene death. (Though, in a different way, isn’t that what some video games do?) However, sometimes the powerfully-sketched line or the one intricately-rendered detail against the impressionistic background conveys far more emotion than the ultra-detailed paint-by-number. It can, in the right circumstances and done well, be not an evasion, but an offering of truth carrying far more weight, because it involves the participation of the reader’s imagination and emotions rather than the passive eye. As writers, we want to make our readers dance with us, not merely offer them a peepshow. Make them live it, not watch it, and they’ll carry some part of the experience with them in their mental landscape for a long, long time, dark and light together. And maybe they’ll remember why they should value those moments of light and the struggles in the dark that made them possible.

We’re not television, after all.


K. V. Johansen is the author of twenty-some books, including The Leopard: Marakand Part One (coming from Pyr in June 2014), the Sunburst-nominated epic fantasy Blackdog, the teen fantasy series The Warlocks of Talverdin (which includes the Ann Connor Brimer Award-winning Nightwalker) the Torrie books (a secondary-world fantasy series for children), and the children’s near-future science fiction Cassandra Virus trilogy. She grew up in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, where after reading The Lord of the Rings at the age of eight she developed not only a lifelong love of fantasy literature, but a fascination with languages and history which would be equally long lasting and would eventually influence the development of her own writing, leading her to take a Master’s degree at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. In addition to fantasy for adults, children, and teens, she has written the Pippin and Mabel/Coquine et Mabelle picture books and two works of literary criticism on the history of children’s fantasy literature, has won several awards and been shortlisted for others; various of her books have been translated into French, Macedonian, and Danish. While spending most of her time writing, she retains her interest in medieval history and languages and is a member of the Tolkien Society and the Early English Text Society, as well as the Science Fiction Writers of America, the Writers’ Union of Canada, and SF Canada. She was also the editor of the posthumously-published final volume in Donald Jack’s triple Leacock Award-winning Bandy Papers series, Stalin Versus Me.

Visit her online at http://www.kvj.ca (for more information about her adult books), http://www.pippin.ca (for everything else) or at her blog, http://www.thewildforest.wordpress.com


4 Responses to “Out-Brutalling the Last Guy: “Grim and gritty, yes … but make sure it’s doing some honest work” by K.V. Johansen”

  1. hierath November 13, 2013 at 8:07 am #

    Reblogged this on Joanne Hall and commented:
    Interesting thoughts on violence in fantasy here :


  1. Top 10 Posts and Episodes for November 2013 | The Skiffy and Fanty Show - December 2, 2013

    […] Out-Brutalling the Last Guy:  ”Grim and gritty, yes…but make sure it’s doing some… […]

  2. Top 10 Posts and Episodes for December 2013 and 2013 Overall | The Skiffy and Fanty Show - January 2, 2014

    […] Out-Brutalling the Last Guy: “Grim and gritty, yes … but make sure it’s doing some honest work… […]

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    […] November 2013 Ah, and the guest blog on “out-brutalling the last guy” over at Skiffy and Fanty. […]

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