Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? Believable Violence In Fantasy

One thing I’ve brought up in the podcast before is what is believable in a story and what’s not. Obviously in Fantasy there is a level of disbelief suspended so that the reader can enjoy fanciful tales of mages hurling lightning at each other’s trolls. It’s a given that the reader will go along with certain things so that they can enjoy the rest of it.

But what exactly should a Fantasy author ‘make up’ and what should they get right? Fantasy is going towards darker, more ‘realistic’ tones, where readers feel that the world’s environment is something more of a truthful depiction of ‘that time.’ Fantasy, after all, exists as a genre in a pan-medieval world that we’ve all agreed is the accepted Fantasy environment. There’s castles and knights and peasants, ploughs and saddles, crossbows, steel, parchment and all the rest of it which we all more or less know came from a period between 1000 and 1600 AD.

But I would say that this is an agreed-upon Fantasy version and not exactly drawn from history.


As an example look at Keegan’s A History of Warfare. This book examines conflict through a cultural and geographical lens. It looks at the impact of (comparatively) high-tech inventions such as chariots or stirrups on warfare and how the steppes could produce effective raiders like the Huns and Mongols that could conquer yet not survive in new lands.

What does this have to do with anything? For one it shows how incredibly complicated world-building can be, for one. It also shows that using medieval-period analogs like Arabic-esque desert raiders or Scandinavian Viking-types can’t just be plonked anywhere on a map and called a day.

Miles Cameron’s The Traitor’s Son Cycle has tons of factual descriptions of arms and armour and historically-accurate depictions of battle. It is refreshing in a way. In another way, Cameron puts so many detail into the arms and armour that at times it feels as though the real characters are the armour suits themselves, ambulating around the battlefield with minor characters inside. Despite this, Cameron should be praised for elevating the common Fantasy-genre-battle from what it currently is – a reenactment of how the Fantasy author remembered the fight scenes in Braveheart.


On Killing is another great book that helps the reader gain a greater understanding of the moral and psychological effects that the act of killing has on a human. Obviously Fantasy is fantasy, and some of it is made up so that the reader can enjoy some vicarious pleasures, one of which happens to be tons of killing. Yet the ramifications of killing on Fantasy characters (and by that I meant the ones doing the killing, not being killed) is different to what is demonstrated in our real-life history. This is what I mean by a made-up world that the Fantasy genre has agreed upon to be their real-world medieval base. Why don’t Fantasy characters on the whole feel as we do when we kill? Or put another way – why doesn’t anyone get PTSD in Fantasy?

The simple answer people weren’t forced to kill against their will, more or less. On Killing details how in WWI many soldiers were firing ineffectively – only about 1-2% would shoot to kill. Studies into this suggested that society produces natural-born killers who are able to kill without adverse effects at a rate of about the same. For the rest of us, we tend to fire high or not at all rather than shoot at someone.

This obviously sucked from a military point of view, so after WWI various militaries looked into raising this effective firing rate, and through studies and training eventually raised it to around 100% for the Americans by the time the Vietnam War was fought.

Which was, to correlate roughly, when PTSD first became common in soldiers. Something in the mind baulks at the killing although modern training overrode the moral resistance to it. So answer the question of why PTSD is a modern occurrence, it’s because soldiers in earlier times weren’t conditioned to overcome huge mental resistances to killing.

There are other contributing factors to how well or how psychologically easy someone can kill that have little to do with modern military conditioning, and throughout history, if you look at effective military units, they tend to have either a technological advantage, a training advantage, or they have a combination of these contributing psychological factors that enabled these units to kill effectively and without overwhelming mental resistance. The big three are distance, moral absolution, and being commanded.


The phalanx was one of the most effective units in history. Why? Because it had all three. The Greek phalanxes defended their homes and farms from raiders. They did this with spears and shields and tightly-packed defence. They had a leader to tell them what to do. The average man could thrust his spear knowing any actual harm would happen far away on the end of his spear point. He was being ordered to do this, and in this command a man can argue with himself that the decision is out of his hands. Plus, defending his home and the homes of the people he knows is a righteous cause, one he knows is right, and one that he would be honoured for. That helps to absolve him from the guilt of killing. Finally, being packed so closely together means he couldn’t not kill without being noticed as a shirker, or not pitching in, so to go along he killed.

The chariot was another example of this. This was a crew-serviced weapon. Think of the chariot like those machine guns that take two people to operate. They work in the same way. One person drove the chariot, and the other shot arrows at foes. For one, we have distance – it is easier to shoot an arrow at someone than it is to stab them. Second, the bowmen is part of a team – the bowman feels if the driver is doing their bit, they have to do theirs as well. You can’t be a conscientious objector on a chariot or else your driver would have something to say.


Now what does this mean when talking about Fantasy?

Well, if humans are largely human-like in Fantasy, it would mean a few things.

For starters, unless the majority of Fantasy characters are the 1-2% of natural-born killers, much of what you read would be statistical anomalies. It is very hard, morally speaking, for most of us to kill, and Fantasy loves a bit of murder.

It is incredibly hard to kill someone with a knife. Fantasy tells us that knives are the favourite weapons of every rogue and cool villain out there. History tells us that in special wartime units that were taught to kill with a knife, they were taught to do it from the front. Hand over the mouth and stick it in the side. This sounds wrong, right? We’ve never seen that. It always happens from the back with a knife across the throat.

That’s because it’s so distressing to look into the face of a person that soldiers would resort to the far messier sneak and slit from behind, even though it didn’t work very well. Often they’d just cut their own hands open. But at least they didn’t have to go through the trauma of watching a face die.

Don’t believe me? How about bayonets?

There are a handful of examples of bayonet to bayonet battles in history. In WWI, during hand-to-hand action in the trenches, soldiers were observed reversing their rifles so they could club their foes. Most bayonet charges end up with one side running away before they can properly melee.


My reason for bringing this up is not to say that Fantasy suffers from a lack of academic rigour, or to show off that I read a book once on this. I do not want to come off as that guy who watches war movies and says, ‘Why does that arsehole have a Thompson when they were never issued to those troops?’ The point I want to make is that these rules of killing as set down by our evolution, our biology and our morals, are very different to Fantasy rules. I’m not saying it so I can read Fantasy novels and scoff ‘How the fuck can they sustain nomadic raiders in that agrarian-based economy?’ Just like Fantasy settings are based upon an agreed-upon representation of a pan-medieval Europe, there is a given way of the nature of violence in these worlds.

There is a law or reality to Fantasy fights, just as there is in action movies, kung-fu films or anime. In action films a punch will always sound crisp and sharp like a snare drum. In kung-fu films we know twenty goons will always attack the hero in an orderly queue. In Fantasy we allow the author to move away from what we know to be true to allow truly bloodthirsty action. As readers, we demand that things splatter once in awhile.


The reason I bring it up is that I feel that with the current circlejerk for more violence, more splatters, and more knife-fights, Fantasy becomes a blockbuster, cartoonish world that avoids the very real and still relatable psychological effects violence has on a person. We subconsciously dismiss the plight of the medieval peasant, for we assume they are incapable of the sophisticated thought of the rest of it. Psychology hadn’t been invented in that time, so how can we know they suffered psychological trauma?

I haven’t even mentioned how important it is to dehumanize an enemy in order to avoid psychological trauma, which in Fantasy’s non-stop glorious and grotesque battles is sadly lacking.

Violence for entertainment’s sake is a big part of Fantasy. In a genre tiring of dirty, abused peasants, Vietnam-era soldiers transplanted into castles and battlefields, and apathy masquerading as moral ambiguity, authors are going over the top with their violence to stand out from the rest. An arms race of it if you will. This overlooks some of the reasons why violence is so compelling in the genre. Fantasy allows us to explore some darker parts of the human nature, and some of that is in that area where the normal mind baulks at raising a hand against another human. When Fantasy ignores these moral conflicts by devoting three chapters to Willem the Mighty using his flail in an interesting way, it becomes dull and repetitive, simply a way for the author to invent new onomatopoeia for the sound an elbow makes when it is crushed.

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