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On Violence and Literature

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In my creative writing course, we did an exercise. Last week, we created a character. This week, we had to figure out what is that character's worse secret and start writing a scene in which this secret is revealed.

My character is Nate. He's 32, works as a software developer in Shoreditch, and lives in Hackney with his fiancé, Anna. And I wrote that his worst secret is that he fantasises about killing random people in the street. This didn't strike me as a particularly dark or even interesting secret, because Nate isn't a particularly dark or interesting character. He's pretty ordinary, and his secret is pretty ordinary too. But when the teacher asked me what the secret was and I told the class, there was an audible gasp.

I didn't expect that, especially not from a bunch of writers. We all have violent fantasies. We may not talk about them, but we do. If we don't have these fantasies, it's because we managed to hide them from ourselves. It's ok, by the way. It's ok to have violent fantasies and to feel like you want to punch someone. It's human. It doesn't make you a violent person; it makes you a person. I know, I studied psychology. But apparently, we're still not ready or willing to talk about it.

Why am I telling you this? Because I was going over the notes I took on Fight Club. If you haven't read or watched it, I'll try not to spoil it, but it's really really worth a read, and in this case, it's even worth a watch if you're not a book person. Brad Pitt and Ed Norton had done an excellent job of it. Anyway. Fight Club is about these violent, aggressive urges in young white American men. But for some reason, it's easier for us to identify with someone who actually punches people than it is for us to identify with someone who has violent urges but doesn't act on them. Maybe the latter is too close to home.

My point is this. When I write, I don't use allegories. I don't have the patience for that. My characters don't go on a physical journey that represents their mental journey. They don't fight whales that represent their dark side. They struggle with themselves in their heads and their conversations with other people. I say what I mean. It's probably because I find the allegories (and the irony and the code words) hard. I don't usually get the references or think, "oh, right, this is a symbol of the hero's mental state" or whatever. To me, if it's done in an obvious way, then it's not done well, but if it's done in a very subtle way, there's a good chance I'd miss it entirely. If it's too subtle, I also tend to think that we read whatever we want into the stories anyway and that possibly the author never thought of this particular interpretation when she wrote the book. I know I often don't.


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