The action and thriller genres rely on certain established tropes. The hero needs someone or something to protect. He (or in rare cases she) will define their individuality by being a lone wolf with no affiliation or being a rebel in an existing power structure. When it comes to physical prowess or combat skill, the hero will be placed in situations where they can to injure, maim and kill to show how badass they are. This is one of the pillars of action stories from The Odyssey to Spectre and it can be the best part of a story. But combat, fight scenes and violence lose their impact when they become inconsequential.
Dictionary.com defines consequence as:
1. The effect, result, or outcome of something occurring earlier
2. An act or instance of following something as an effect, result, or outcome.
3. The conclusion reached by a line of reasoning; inference.
4. Importance or significance:
5. Importance in rank or position; distinction:
In action and thriller fiction, violence often has no consequences for the characters or the hero. I’ve read a best-selling novel that started with a six man shootout in New York’s Central Park during the day in the 21st Century. The hero moved through the plot without any acknowledgment of the effect that event would have. The cops never arrived and never investigated the event, even though there is a police precinct in Central Park and the surrounding area has a heavy police presence because of all the high priced real estate around. No one had any video of the incident, even though there are cameras in the Park and everyone has an iPhone. The hero was shot during the incident, but suffered no physical, mental or emotional impact from the incident. There was no mention of any news story about a massive gun battle in the middle of the most famous park in New York City. This lack of consequence gnawed at me until I was forced to put the book down because I couldn’t suspend enough of my disbelief to keep reading.
In real life of course, violence has consequences for everyone involved. Books like Violence: A Writer’s Guide, Real World Self Defense, On Combat and the Writing Violence series discuss the consequences of violence in depth, but in broad strokes physical combat can affect a character’s
- Mental facilities: people often see and perceive the world in a different way after a violent encounter. Depending on the situation, their view of the world, other people and themselves can undergo profound change. This can happen whether they win or lose.
- Emotional well-being: We have learned a lot in recent years about the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on people who go through violent encounters. It doesn’t just impact soldiers engaged in drawn out conflict. PTSD can hit anyone involved in any number of encounters. It should also be noted that some people react in the opposite way, developing emotional frameworks that seek out and enjoy violence.
- Physical health: It might be obvious to say violence often hurts and can sometimes kill, but when reading action novels or watching action movies, this reality is often ignored. Characters can be shot, stabbed, beaten and bruised in one scene and restored to full health in the next. I know people who have suffered long term injuries in the relative safety of practice. Why ignore all those realities in fiction?
- Legal Status: Most types of violence are officially illegal in most countries of the world. People who engage in violent acts can easily face arrest, prosecution and prison for something as simple as a street fight. The more over the top and bloody the encounter, the more likely the police will be to get involved, and the legalities of “self-defense” usually don’t protect people who willingly participate in violence
- Social Status: Different segments of society react to violence in different ways. While a shoving match at a high society party might send someone into exile, a friendly fistfight might not even be remembered the next day in another part of the city or country. In either case, if the event is in public it probably won’t go unnoticed or undocumented in the modern world. Just type in “street fight” or “fist fight” in YouTube to see what I mean. In addition, the “winner” and ‘loser” of the fight will have to deal with the repercussions of their actions in their social circles, whether they are positive or negative.
- Daily lifestyle: Violence often creates more violence. The winner of a fight today might find himself hunted by the loser, or his friends, or his company, or his country depending on the importance of the loser. The winner of a fight might find himself constantly looking over his shoulder for the revenge attack. In the worst case scenario, he might not be able to ever go home again.
- Financial Status: Between doctor bills, legal bills, psychology bills and protecting against future attacks, the cost of violence in dollars and cents can cause more long term damage than the physical beating. People have been bankrupted by violent encounters even if they won and even if they were exonerated in court.
Consequence in Story
Barry Eisler is one of my favorite writers and his style inspires my own work when it comes to depicting violence. The John Rain Series is full of violent scenes, but consequence always plays an important role before and after the fight. Mr. Eisler’s characters often spend most of the novel trying to anticipate, eliminate or reduce the impact of impending violence, creating a tension few other writers can create.
In my next book, Smoke and Shadow, I tell stories of two combat operators and their missions against warlords, slave traders and insurgents. In each novella, the characters take the time to plot, plan and prepare for what might go wrong in their violent encounters. I hope the result creates a dynamic both interesting and realistic.
The Truth about Fiction
Not every story benefits from complex portrayals of violence. Part of the fun of a James Bond or superhero film is ignoring legal and emotional realities for a few hours. But some stories and characters can be enhanced and improved if their violent actions had more consequences.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments. I look forward to hearing from you.