By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
There was a lot of chatter about the violence in Mockingjay, the final book of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games series. I paid attention because I struggled myself with how to portray a realistic war, but not make it something so horrific I'm going to freak out my younger or more sensitive readers. Or bore those who aren't so sensitive. I'm sure I'm not the only facing this issue.
The Healing Wars Saga ends, naturally, with a war. No spoilers there, as everyone could see this coming from book one. As a storyteller, I want the war to feel real, and carry all the emotional weight a young girl going through this (again) is going to have. The "wars" in Nya's life have shaped her as a character. Skimping on that in the end would be wrong.
However, it's a middle grade book.
I'll admit, it's been hard. And not just because I want to respect those who might be put off by violence. Page after page of war is, quite honestly, boring as snot. From a purely plotting standpoint, you need more or the story falls on its face.
But not addressing that issue would ring false. Readers would point fingers and slap me around. They'd know I was shirking my duty as a storyteller. Because for three books I've been building up to this war. If it's too easy or over too fast, they'll feel cheated. Readers are going to want to see how Nya deals with this. What plan she'll come up with to make it all okay, like she always does. (and how that plan will screw up other things in the process, like she always does)
I chose to do what I've always done. This is Nya's story, and she sees the world with Nya-vision. I approached the war from what Nya felt was important and what she experienced. Instead of going personal to broad (which is what I've done so far with the series, as Nya's world view has expanded and the bigger picture unfolded) I went broad to personal. Nya is drawn more and more into that final war, and it becomes more and more personal for her. It's not just a concept. It's not just her past. The broad ideas become very, very real in very personal ways.
I'm pleased with the results. I think I've shown the horrors of war without being horrific, because they're Nya's horrors. She's lived with violence for a long time, so that doesn't affect her the same. I don't think the violence I do have is gratuitous, because it's there to evoke certain emotions from my characters. It's not just there for the sake of showing the truth of war.
And since Nya is a bit of an optimist, there is beauty in the midst of all that horror.
So, what can you do if you're working on an epic story, or one that happens to gave a lot of violence in it?
1. Don't just describe the violence.
Just like page after page of setting description, battle after battle or fight after fight gets boring. Especially if you're in a detached POV looking down at the battle from afar. Find the personal story in that battle or fight to humanize (or elvinize, or whatever you race may be) the fight.
2. Provide stakes that are more than just death.
Readers know you're not going to kill off your characters, so unless you plan to actually kill some off (Joss Wheadon is a master at this), the threat of death won't be as tense as you'd expect. One of the most common complaints I hear about first person, if that you know they won't die. (Which makes me eager to write a first person where they do die). And killing off minor characters that no one cares about doesn't make readers worry more about the main characters. We know spear carriers when we see them, those ensign red shirts that are there to be cannon fodder. Add stakes that have deeper meaning to your characters, and let them be things that can actually go wrong and happen in that battle.
3. Mix it up.
Too much fighting can wear a reader down. Pacing is critical in battles, because you don't want to numb the reader to your exciting scenes. Throw in some quiet moments, some slower times to balance the fighting. Leave them breathless, but give them times to catch their breath as well.
Stories are personal, so when we have to go epic it gets tough. But if we remember why readers read in the first place, we can find that personal touch that not only puts the reader there, but makes them care about the bigger picture as well.