General Fiction Television Writing Tips

Is It Okay To Justify On-Screen Violence?

After all, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a smug jerk get the pointy end of the stick. Usually, my attitude is that viewers are free to enjoy or despise any moment in media. But is it justified? I'm not the moralizing type who screams 'danger' at a feather falling, you know? However, I think the issue is a bit more complex than 'yes' or 'no'.

Most of us enjoy on-screen violence when it happens to a bad guy, and justify it.

And in Game of Thrones, we often see that happen.

*full spoilers for Game Of Thrones*

After all, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a smug jerk get the pointy end of the stick. Usually, my attitude is that viewers are free to enjoy or despise any moment in media. I’m not the moralizing type who screams ‘danger’ at a feather falling, you know? I hope that’s clear. However, I think the issue is a bit more complex than ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Violence is such a contested and an emotional topic for many. We hate it when it happens to characters we identify with, but like it when it happens to villains or those who we dislike. And sometimes, you can’t help it. When Sansa Stark finally killed Ramsay Bolton, her cruel husband and rapist, I was pleased. However, I’m not forgetting that killing someone is traumatic, particularly for abuse victims. Sansa Stark feeding Ramsay to his hounds did not undo the damage Ramsay did to her. There’s no way to get around it: death is traumatic, even moreso if you are the one dishing it out.

On an article published by Time, a study by Monash University, compares the emotional response after killing in a war zone. It’s not pretty. Many soldiers come home, shellshocked with PTSD and are unable to tell their stories. They get nightmares and shatter their relationships with loved ones. That being a said, a common retort is that the opponents ‘were enemies’ or ‘bad people’ and thus, deserved what was coming to them. Not only do I disagree with that, but killing a bad person doesn’t make you feel better.

The human brain is wired for empathy and consideration. It is also wired for survival, but that doesn’t mean it helps you kill. Just because something brings temporary enjoyment, doesn’t translate into long-term bliss.

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When you kill someone (or even commit an act of violence), there isn’t fireworks going off in the sky, people cheering and smiling. Most people are horrified at the events that have unfolded. That’s why some fans struggled to stomach Arya killing Meryn Trant- it was too realistic, almost. It’s as if humans aren’t meant to be violent.

When I think about Arya and Sansa Stark, and all the people they have killed, I remember that it comes from a place of pain and hurt. That’s the crux of on screen violence against villains and annoying characters- usually, for it to happen, a character you care about has to be hurt first.

Game of Thrones has always been a show that tried to be as realistic as possible in regards to violence. Whether it’s the brutal death of Oberyn Martell, the poisoning of Joffrey Baratheon or the beheading of Eddard Stark, the violence in Game of Thrones hits closer to home.

I’m writing this post because of a quote from Tyrion Lannister about Daenerys Targaryen, that I thought was interesting.

When she murdered the slavers of Astapor, I’m sure no one but the slavers complained. After all, they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meereenese nobles, who could argue? They were evil men.The Dothraki khals she burned alive? They would have done worse to her. Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right. She believes her destiny is to build a better world for everyone. If you believed that if you truly believed it, wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and paradise?

Tyrion Lannister “The Iron Throne” S08E06

When we normalize violence against “bad people” we are essentially giving more power to those who dish it out. I don’t know about everyone else, but someone who kills or commits great acts of violence shouldn’t feel they are acting in a good and righteous way. It’s a dangerous slippery slope- once you endorse one act of violence, you are endorsing the next.

It’s like a kid stealing from a store. They start small, with a Koala-shaped chocolate. Then they move on to bigger, and more expensive items. Violence is like shoplifting: what starts as small and innocent spews into something bigger and scarier. The violence from Daenerys Targaryen, for the most part- were slavers and abusers. Then it was the opposition (The Meereenese nobels), then the people who refused to bend the knee (The Tarly’s) and now it’s the innocent smallfolk of King’s Landing. The more acts of violence you commit, the stronger your justification gets. Because you’ll sure as hell need one when you slaughter people.

Don’t, for a second, believe that certain people are not on this slope. We are all on it- fictional or real. No character goes from white knight to black hat within two hours: it’s a process where the character could look gray, like an anti-hero.

Tyrion Lannister is dead-on about Daenerys’ motives, and her want to create a paradise. Which isn’t a bad thing, but with a strong ego and a knack for violence, a problem is brewed.

Characters- like Daenerys Targaryen- should never feel justified in their violence. Why? Because violence, at its core, which is about hurting people, can’t be justified by any morals. Of course, if you kill someone in self-defense, your options were limited. That’s different. But you still won’t see me cheering you on because being put in a situation where violence is the only answer is pretty bad.

If you are going to enjoy a fictional death, make it clear that you are only enjoying it within the realms of fiction, and not its real life equivalent. By all means, enjoy Daenerys frying a slaver- but understand that it’s fiction and should never translate into real life. Have fun with fiction, but don’t seriously justify cruel actions.

Cheering on those who commit violence in the real world can boost their ego, make them feel confident and more justified. Do we really want that?

What do you think? Comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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