“World Saved, Humanity Lost” (Superman vs. The Elite)

I just finished watching Superman vs. The Elite, an animated adaptation of What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way? Although Action Comics #775 was published in March 2001, six months before the Twin Towers fell, it’s arguably even more timely now.  At the time it was written as a repudiation of the ‘grim and gritty’ style of comics, seen in Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, and especially Frank Miller, who saw principled heroes like Superman as fools, too weak to “finish the job” and kill the bad guys.

No, eleven years later, it feels more like it’s speaking to America, as we’ve bombed and droned and surveilled and tortured, all in the name of protected “the good guys, namely us” (to quote the leader of The Elite, Manchester Black).

The Elite are a band of incredibly powerful anti-heroes who divide the world into “good guys, namely us” and bad guys, and then proceed to destroy the bad guys, with no hesitation, no remorse, and little care as to the consequences.  Their leader, Manchester Black, has psychic and telekinetic powers unrivalled in the D.C. Universe, and he sees no problem with using those powers to coerce, kill, or even torture, as long as his victims ‘deserve it.’

And the thing is, he’s at least partly right.

The movie, especially, takes time to show that the justice system doesn’t always work, that prisons aren’t escape-proof, and that former or escaped inmates can re-offend, often in horrific ways.  Manchester Black isn’t a straw man, or not entirely.  He’s got A point … but I think he’s missing The point.

Superman initially works with The Elite, but quickly realizes that their goals and ideals are incompatible with his.  The movie actually has time to show this in more detail, including scenes of a rescue mission that wasn’t in the comic, one in which they have to cooperate to save the trapped civilians. The movie also gives more time for Superman to explain his position: he doesn’t “fix” the world because he doesn’t think it’s broken.  He knows there is terrible poverty and suffering, but he believes in humanity’s potential to grow and help its own, without needing a caped dictator force them.

Although Superman tries to convince The Elite to mend their ways, Manchester Black is too egotistical, too powerful, and too sure of his own rightness to listen.  Ultimately, it comes to a head, with Superman and The Elite set to fight at dawn.  That night, Lois asks him if he can’t just let someone else handle it, call in the Justice League, or something.  Superman observes that people need to know someone believes in right and wrong, that someone believes in them, and their ability to do the right thing.

I won’t give away the ending, or any of the really emotional points of the story.  But every time I think about it, I am more impressed.  Superman, the ultimate action hero, confronts the myth of redemptive violence head-on, smashing through it like a cheap cinder-block wall.  He confronts cynicism, armchair-macho vigilantism, misanthropy (and the corresponding misogyny that so often goes with it).

And that’s something I hope to someday be able to do.  Not that my goal is to comic-book characters (though I’d jump at the chance to write Superman), but I’d love to be able to so clearly show both sides of something, tell a story with great economy and impact, and convey a message or premise I believe in, all the while telling an engaging and entertaining story.  And that’s part of the reason I keep writing.  I may not be there, but I won’t get there without practice.  Nobody’s born awesome, well, except maybe Superman.

In Comes Romeo, he’s moaning…

(Bonus points if you get the reference in the title.  If not, click here).

I think by now we all know I’m a Shakespeare fan – I’m not a true Shakespeare nerd, because I haven’t read and seen them all, but I am a fan.  And one of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Romeo & Juliet … at least in theory.

I say “at least in theory” because I have so rarely seen a performance of the play that even came close to doing it justice.  Romeo & Juliet isn’t a Harlequin Romance Novel or Disney Princess Movie that incongruously ends with everyone dead.  It’s a tragedy, and a far more brutal tragedy than MacBeth or Hamlet, because the violence doesn’t just kill people, it kills love and hope.  It ends, not with a sword fight, but with a suicide.  It consumes the city of Verona with a hatred so deep it becomes unconscious and dehumanizing.

The opening conversation between (Act I, Scene i) two Capulet servants is often omitted or cut to little more than an issued challenge, but it is by far the most telling and important conversation in the play.  I’ve quoted the most relevant part below.  You can find the whole script here.

SAMPSON A dog of the house of Montague moves me.

GREGORY To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand: therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn’st away.

SAMPSON A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.

GREGORY That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall.

SAMPSON True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids
to the wall.

GREGORY The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

SAMPSON ‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY They must take it in sense that feel it.

SAMPSON Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

So they’re standing around talking smack about the Montagues, Gregory’s egging Sampson on by questioning his courage.  Sampson is bragging about how he will kill the Montague men and then rape and/or kill the Montague women.  “Maidenhead,” as you know, is Elizabethan-era slang for the hymen in particular and virginity in general.  This is basically two guys out on the street talking smack … glorifying the rape and murder of the Montagues.  Gregory and Sampson aren’t actually Capulets; they’re servants of the Capulets.  They barely even have any stake in this feud, but the generational feud has generated such an atmosphere of hatred that this is what they talk about when they’re not working: rape and murder.

The premise of Romeo & Juliet isn’t that love conquers all: it most assuredly does not.  The moral is that an unwillingness to forgive will destroy everything that you love, leaving nothing but guilt and grief behind, and that the cycle of hate and destruction will not end until both sides have suffered enough to learn to forgive.  Considering the 20th century’s history of ethnic cleansing and genocide, Shakespeare’s ending may have actually been overly optimistic.

It drives me straight up the wall to see this play watered down, presented like a love story, stripped of all the violence and ugliness of the vendetta.  I’ve seen the Royal Shakespearean company do this (I almost thought they’d just misprinted the programs, and I was really watching Much Ado About Nothing until the end, when everyone died), I’ve seen Hollywood do this (more than once, though I’ll admit that Gnomeo and Juliet won me over, despite it all).

The only version I’ve ever seen that captured the violence and ugliness was Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, which kept the Shakespearean script but used modern-day settings, clothes, etc.  The Sampson and Gregory dialogue was replaced by a fairly brutal, extended fight that conveyed the same information to audiences who might not know what “maidenhead” meant or get the significance of pushing people “to the wall” or “off the walls.”

A lot of people criticize this film for using modern sets and costumes, but ironically, it’s the only production of the play I have ever seen that is actually faithful to the script.

Luhrmann’s film to emphasize the feud’s engrained violence, the privilege of nobility, and the crushing atmosphere this provided, creating an atmosphere so full of hate and vengeance that love may well have been the ultimate rebellion.

So… you may be asking, what has this got to do with anything?

Well, the message of Romeo & Juliet is a powerfully moral one, one that we can all learn from: if we cannot learn to forgive, we will destroy everything we love.  But that message cannot shine out if  someone, for whatever reason, blunts the darkness and ugliness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, Romeo and Juliet’s love becomes just another love story, not a singular point of light in a violent, hateful, ugly city of darkness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, the destruction of their love seems just like a bummer, and ending that doesn’t make sense, something Shakespeare should have revised.  Or worse, their deaths seem romantic, like the end of Wuthering Heights, and the entire point is lost.

You all know I’ve been wrestling with my writing – harsh language, the darkness of the subject matter, the violence itself (especially in my Blood Oath trilogy).  And thinking about Romeo & Juliet has made me reconsider another angle.  I can’t self-censor to the point that the most important part of the story gets lost, muddled in a respectable, slightly dim haze.  If I have any light to share, I must show it as truthfully as possible, even if that means going into a dark, violent, ugly place.  And I won’t feel ashamed about it, either.

The Violent Imagination

I’ve been listening to “What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding”  and thinking about the title “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”  And it’s made me mad.  It’s made me sad.  Worse still, it’s made me preachy.  I wrote a 300-ish word post called “What’s so Funny?”, which I might haul out sometime if I need an example of what not to do.

Ultimately, this is one more stage in the transformation of my imagination.  Like most American kids, I was raised on a diet of sanitized violence, the heroism of the fist.  And to a large degree I love those stories, still, stories where a single death is treated as a tragedy, not a footnote or statistic.

Honestly, the violent imagination problem isn’t about loving Superman or Optimus Prime, any more than the materialistic consumer problem comes from believing in Santa Claus.  It’s what happens when the story grows up without really maturing.  Regarding materialism, the problem comes when the wide-eyed wonder of Christmas morning becomes, not the wide-eyed joy of giving, but the short-lived “hit” of buying new stuff (if television is the opiate of the masses, consumerism is its crack cocaine).

The violent imagination problem comes when we leave Superman behind for The Authority, or The Punisher, or Dirty Harry, or The Bride from Kill Bill.  Or Hamlet, for that matter.  We are taught, by media both vulgar and elevated, that things will get better if the good guys kill the right people.  We’re taught this by our government.  We’re taught this by our news media.  We teach and learn this from each other.  Our civil religion teaches us this is so, echoing the sentiment from ten thousand pulpits.

The message is so ingrained in our culture that it’s nigh-impossible to avoid it, and it even feels a little bit like treason to try.

But that doesn’t change the truth.  The world will NOT get better just because we kill the right people.

I’m not a pacifist.  Maybe I will be one day, but I’m not right now.  I believe that sometimes, fighting is necessary, and when necessary, it is right, even if our past behavior set the wheels in motion.  On September 12, 2001, we couldn’t go back in time and undo all the times our foreign policy screwed over the people of the Middle East, pushing them into the arms of murderous radicals.  Those sins were committed, relics of an abominable Cold War strategy that said, effectively, “we’ll support any anti-communist, no matter how cruel, despotic, or dysfunctional he is.”

Likewise, in 1942, we couldn’t undo the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and saddled Germany with oppressive, punitive reparation payments it could not pay, leaving the German people demoralized, impoverished, and ripe for a demagogue’s pickings (I know the U.S. never even signed the Treaty of Versailles, but President Wilson could have worked a lot harder to stop it, perhaps by making U.S. rebuilding aid to England and France contingent upon a fair peace treaty with Germany).

And so we fight, because we have to.  But this is not glorious, and it is not bloodless.  Whether Dresden or Afghanistan, even our necessary wars still leave thousands of dead civilians in their wake.

But we never seem to learn.  We never learn to be peacemakers, to stop laying the seeds for the next brutal conflict in the resolution of this one.  We never learn that we are a giant in a playground, and that we cannot behave like (for example) France, because we are not on their scale, and our actions have far more devastating consequences than theirs.

But we’ve been taught since childhood that we are the good guys, and so it follows that whatever we do is good.  We measure the body count of our wars in American dead, as if brown foreigners don’t count.  But it’s not because of racism, not really; it’s because we’ve been taught to divide up good and bad, and glory in the bad guys’ deaths.

 

And it is maddeningly hard to shake this.

And even more maddening to do it in a way that doesn’t disrespect the sacrifices our soldiers have made to protect us.  Their most sheltered supply clerk has sacrificed more for America than I have: enduring boot camp, moving to wherever the army tells him or her to go, sacrificing, at least while he or she is within the army, the right to free speech and expression.

Heck, with an easily-acquired (for those without criminal records) permit, I can carry a firearm a huge number of places, including my home.  Soldiers who live on base don’t get to do that; they don’t even get to have guns in their homes.  They can still worship freely, but they’ve pretty much sacrificed the rest of their Bill of Rights protections in order to serve.

Many servicemen and women have given far more: years away from family, their babies’ first steps, arms, legs, marriages, lives, traumatic brain injuries that steal their intellect and even personalities.  Even those who escape the combat zone apparently unscathed often have nightmares that linger for years.  I never want to minimize that, or pretend I know what it’s like.

But that doesn’t change the truth.  I can’t cheer anyone’s death, not any more.  And I can’t write in such a way that my writing cheers anyone’s death.  So where does that leave me?

I’m not a pacifist.  Sometimes terrible forces must be met with force.  Saying “everything would be better if everyone was a pacifist” doesn’t really help.  The question is, will we unilaterally be pacifists, or will we not?

And the answer is, we’re suicidal to just unilaterally become pacifists in the face of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, even Bin Laden.  Passive resistance works against fundamentally decent people (like the British in India or Americans during segregation) who are committing an atrocity, because once they are convinced they are committing an atrocity, their decency will force them to put an end to it.  It doesn’t work against a totalitarian war machine that is already in process of killing tens of millions.  Its record isn’t even that good against small-potatoes Third World dictatorships, though it does, at least, have a chance there.

But if pacifism is too far to go, we can be peacemakers, reserving violence only for the last resort, and actively working to de-escalate situations that can lead to violence.

This is the responsibility of everyone who legally carries a concealed handgun: to de-escalate situations, to let the other guy have the last word, to even let yourself be spat upon, because you know you are carrying death in your pocket, and you cannot unleash death unless death is already threatened  (I’ll leave off any comments on the Travyon Martin case, and simply say that all parties need our prayers.  I will say that Mr. Zimmerman should voluntarily surrender his permit to carry a weapon, even if he is not guilty of murder.  Following someone around and confronting them is a violation of the peacemaker mentality required to responsibly carry).

So, once more, where does this leave me as a writer?  I mean, I like writing action scenes.  But I can’t glorify killing.  And I’m not sure I can, with a clean conscience, write the kind of chivalrous, bloodless violence that Superman, the Lone Ranger, and their comrades practice.  That doesn’t really exist in the real world.

So what do I do?

Right now, I’m writing a lot of unhappy endings, or rather, pyrrhic victories and bittersweet endings.  That can’t really last forever.  I like happy endings, and I want to figure out how to get there from here.  I can think of two roads forward: unlocking my nonviolent imagination by learning more about creative nonviolent resistance, and learning to write creative nonviolent resistance; and really thinking about the good take-away messages of childhood heroes.

Much as Santa Claus can teach the joy of giving, the message of many of the best stories about the childhood heroes is that of self-sacrifice, of bravery, of putting others ahead of oneself.  Every time Superman steps in front of a missile (which could, perhaps, hurt him), we see a four-color version of our own better natures.  The fistfight with the guy who shot the missile is far less important than the act of stepping in front of it.  Time and time again one of these cartoony characters steps into a doorway to hold that point against an army, so a group of innocents can escape.  Of course they escape, most of the time.  Sometimes they don’t, though the authors always seem to bring them back.

Sometimes, the bloodless violence fistfight types (Superman for example, or even Batman [spoilers],  etc.) can serve as counter-arguments against those who say that the ends justifies the means, that wiping out the bad guys is the right move, that the ends justifies the means.  But I still don’t think I can write that kind of sanitized faux-violence, not having seen what real-world violence is.

So what do I do?  This is part of what the short story challenge is all about, even more so than character voice, unified premise, or proactive protagonists.  It’s about figuring out what a hero is, and learning how to write it.

No wonder I’m nervous.

The Short Story Challenge: Why Does it Have to Be So Challenging???

I’m doing this instead of actually working on this week’s short story.  Yup.

Why?  It’s scary.  Short stories are all the hard parts (the getting started parts, the planning out parts), all the time.  Plus, I have to watch my length, leave out things that I’d like to explore, all because of space.

And since I’m working on premise and character voice especially, I’m having to work much harder in my writing than usual.  I have to be more mindful of my text, especially dialogue, which I usually like to just let “flow” at high speed, writing the whole conversation very quickly.  The only problem is, that tends to produce fairly generic-ized conversation that doesn’t strictly keep to the characters’ voices.  That’s tough, at least for me.

Also, I’m not accustomed to starting with a premise, and making sure the fiction sticks to it.  I’m used to coming up with ideas, characters, settings, some kind of inspiration, running with it, writing some scenes, then figuring out a plot around them.  I’m not entirely convinced that this is a bad method, nor that I need to abandon it altogether.

However, much like profanity, I’m “giving it up for Lent” regarding this short story challenge.  I’m doing things a different way to learn how to be the master of the fiction I write (if that makes sense), to prove to myself that my prior methods aren’t just laziness or weakness.

So, the desire to make myself a better writer, to prove myself to myself, is driving me on, and fear of failure (and, honestly, of the difficult, possibly painful work ahead) is holding me back, pushing me to find excuses not to write these stories.  Heh, story of my life.  Okay: break’s over …
 

Attack of the 50-Foot Conscience, or, The Dawn of the Short Story Challenge

Dean Wesley Smith has an excellent series of posts called “Think Like a Publisher,” about how independent authors have to, well, think like publishers if they want to get ahead and make money.  That makes sense.  After all, according to one study, half of self-published authors made $500 or less last year from their writing).

Keeping that in mind, I’ve been plugging ahead, trying to build up a list of books to publish (according to Smith, you aren’t likely to reach the critical mass that attracts viewers until you’ve got 20 novella or novel-length works out for potential readers to find), while investigating methods for building up a platform (You Are Not Alone by Karen Lamb was good, but somewhat dated.  I’m hoping Platform by Michael Hyatt will be even better).  I haven’t actually done any of the promotion methods (unless you count blogging semi-regularly), but that’s okay: until I have more than one book “up,” there isn’t really much point in self-promotion.

The thing is, I think I’m putting the cart before the zebra, so to speak.  In a lot of ways, I’m still figuring out what it means for me to be a writer.  Do I really want to pigeonhole myself into writing action horror and urban fantasy because that’s what the first two publishable-quality books I wrote were?  Do I want to make that a big part of my online identity as a writer, knowing that if I do, I’ll have to start over with another pen name if I switch genres?  Do I even want to have to keep different pen names straight?  I already feel a little sleazy with one (I’m currently writing under my middle name, which isn’t technically a false name, but it isn’t what my friends call me, either.  I do have a couple of minor academic publications under my first name, and I didn’t want to cross the academic research and genre fiction streams, so to speak).

And, most of all, what about my conscience?

Fiction should not, as a general rule, be prescriptive or didactic.  It isn’t always as bad as the Left Behind series (you can read the Slacktivist retelling here), but “getting the point across” too often kills the complexity, the ambiguity, and, generally, the emotional impact of the piece, pushing the reader or viewers away by clubbing them over the head with the message.

But every story tells a story, and every story has some kind of premise (I hesitate to use the term ‘moral,’ because the ‘moral’ of a story could be something very immoral, like ‘torture is okay, as long as they’re bad guys’ *cough, cough, 24, cough, cough*).  Granted, some stories are disorganized enough that any premise or moral tone is unintelligible, but that’s hardly something to emulate or brag about.

But if every story tells a story, don’t I have a responsibility to make sure my stories’ premises align with my own beliefs?  Yeah, I know, I talked about this before (link), and I thought I had it solved.  I think that may have been a bit of wishful thinking.  At best, it was a patch to buy me more time to figure the problem out.  By placing Blood for Blood within the context of a trilogy, I gave myself two more books to work out the moral, and I think, so long as I write book 3 well enough, I’ll have a good one (effectively, a rejection of the myth of redemptive violence, which I think will be especially effective, given that Benedict is the kind of vengeful anti-hero you’d often find in action movies).

There are a lot of sub-skills to master in order to be a good fiction writer – character voice, sensory descriptions, pacing – but the most important is finding your own voice as an author, and that means understanding what story you’re actually telling, and making sure the premises of your stories actually line up with who you are.

To that end, I’m setting my long-form fiction aside for a while and just practicing.  My goal is to write ten short stories this summer, working hard on improving specific points in my writing with each one (thanks to Dean Wesley Smith, again, for this idea).   Now, with only demanding 250 words a day from myself, I could easily take 2 weeks or more to write a short story, and it may take me longer than “the summer” to write ten of them. That’s fine; the point here is writing one short story after another, working on improving specific things about my writing, working on hammering out my voice in a series of small, contained experiences, none of which have the high-stakes stresses that come from pouring several months of my life into a novel.

I’ll be posting a bit more about my journey of self-discovery through writing as I go.  I’ll be touching on some varied and possibly even controversial subjects, including the role of profanity in realistic dialogue, sexual content, intentional/unintentional messages, and spirituality.  The point of it all is this: before I work to build up a platform, to build an audience, to get the world to hear what I’m saying, I need to be sure I know what I’m saying, and just as importantly, that I believe what I’m saying.

Weapon of Choice

In any action-oriented story, even Action Horror, the major characters’ weapons can and should be an important thematic element.  Shaun of the Dead’s cricket bat was both obviously improvised and iconically British.  Rick Grimes’s chrome Colt Python revolver sets him apart visually as both an old-school lawman and a traditional red-blooded American male.  Roland Deschain’s revolvers, their barrels forged from shards of Excalibur itself, identified him as not only an heir to Clint Eastwood’s man with no name, but to the knights of the round table itself (and, of course, Robert Browning’s knight, also named Roland, from his poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came), and through these knightly roots show the sacred quest he is undertaking (hopefully by now everyone knows that Roland Deschain is the gunslinger from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  If not, stop reading this, go read The Gunslinger, and come back).

I’ve tried to continue this trend in my Blood Oath novels.  Ramsey Duvall, a vampire who was once a Musketeer under King Louis XIV, carries a rapier-blade sword cane and a hidden dagger, allowing him to fight much as he did when he was mortal.  So does D’Anton, a French-revolution era duelist, as sharp and thin as his blade.  Greta, the Viking woman, and Harold, an ancient Saxon warrior, both wield axes, befitting their muscular, untamed demeanor.  Some vampires even use guns; a gunslinger from the old west still has her revolvers, but the bullets are silver-tipped, and even they aren’t that effective.  Christie, a big man, formerly of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, carries a Maxim machinegun at one point, a weapon designed to be mounted on a tripod and fired by a crew of mortals.

But these are all secondary characters.  Most of the weapon choices just reflect their personality, and almost serve as visual flair.  The real question is, what does Benedict carry, and what does it say about him?

When the novel starts, Benedict has only one of the three weapons that would become his signature.  His first weapon is a heavy machete, like the ones used to cut sugar cane or bamboo.  It’s short, so it’s easier to conceal than a sword, it’s heavy, so it has the force to sever a head, and, thematically, it’s ugly.  Machetes are about as unromantic as you get.  Swords romanticize violence, making it seem like something from an Errol Flynn movie.  Even in relatively gritty movies like Highlander, swordsmanship still paints the character in a romantic light.  Swords are elegant, often beautiful, and remind us of a romanticized time (we probably all know the quote from Star Wars).  To date, I have never heard anyone romanticize a machete.

Benedict also carries two double-barreled sawed-off shotguns, which, at close range, create a big enough path of destruction to kill most vampires with a direct head shot, and slow many vampires down with a more prosaic torso shot.  Lacking superhuman speed, strength, and other powers, Benedict needs every advantage he can get.  He even carries at Tommygun at one point, but the ammunition proves too weak to be really effective against vampires.  He eventually replaces the sawed-off shotguns with a pair of double-barreled .45-70 pistols, a round that killed many buffalo in the 19th century.  These guns are engraved with silver ravens, and called “Memory” and “Thought,” which has personal significance to Benedict.  Large gunshot wounds are similarly not romantic.

The choice of coarse, heavy weapons that carry no hint of romanticism was intentional.  Part of my goal with this ongoing story is to de-romanticize the violence.  Sometimes, the violence is necessary.  Not always.  Sometimes, violence protects the innocent and weak from predators and tyrants.  But it never does so cheaply, prettily, or innocently.  And that de-romanticization is why I can, in good faith, call my work Action Horror, instead of Action Adventure: violence is by its nature horrific, and I try to remain faithful to that truth as I write.

No Innocent Use of Violence

“Peace?  I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee!”

– Tybalt, Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare.

I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to find something to believe in, so to speak, writing-wise.  It struck me so hard that not only was there a problem with the ultimately nihilistic take-away message of Blood for Blood but with its casual acceptance of violence.

One thing I took (and still take) pride in was Blood for Blood’s very human portrayal of vampires, their complex society, the steps they’ve taken to tame their violent urges, and the costs they’ve paid for that.  The flip side of this is that killing them is morally no different than killing a human; they’re not the monsters of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, not subhuman or demonic.

Something I learned from reading Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories was that you can always write a character into a situation where brutality, even torture (or whatever else you feel like writing), is the “only way out” or “the right thing to do.”  Inside a book or story, the writer is, effectively, a god, and holds a god’s responsibility for the situations his or her characters find themselves in.

So, no, I won’t fall back on the tired excuse that Benedict’s use of violence was necessary in the situations I put him in.  From his perspective it was … but I wrote him into those situations, and so the word “necessary” hardly applies to me.

Miroslav Volf said, “One could sketch scenarios where I very clearly wouldn’t think that it would be morally responsible not to deploy violence. Nonetheless, repentance for violence would be in order even in those situations; in my view there is no innocent use of violence.

My friend Billy said much the same thing some time earlier (we were talking about World War II and personal self-defense), but I wasn’t ready to hear it then.  Sorry, Billy.  You were right.

To clarify, I’m not a pacifist, and I even worry about parents who are totally nonviolent.  Adults can consent to a friend or lover or spouse who won’t lift a hand to defend them, but children can’t.  I mean, I respect their conviction, but I do worry about the unintended consequences.

And I don’t believe it’s right to call yourself a pacifist and then dial 911 so the police will protect you.  That’s just passing the buck to someone else.  If you’re unwilling to fight to defend yourself, then fine, but don’t ask someone else to do it for you, and then call yourself non-violent.

No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t call 911 in a violent situation; you should.  But if you do, you should own up to the fact that you’ve just responded to violence (the assailant) with violence (the police and their guns).  A bullet wound bleeds just the same if it was a cop or a civilian’s finger that pulled the trigger.

And if you do have to defend yourself, I believe in using the most effective means available to you.  For me, in the US, that means firearms … but I pray that I never have to so much as point one at another human being, much less pull the trigger.

I don’t believe in letting violent aggressors have their way, to let Genghis Khan kill his 40 million, in the name of nonviolence.  Are we really to be so Kantian that the consequences of our action and inaction don’t matter, so long as our means are pure?  Surely not.  Just as the ends don’t justify the means, neither do the means justify the ends.  We are responsible for our actions and inactions and their consequences.

But I don’t believe in looking for trouble, either.

I don’t believe in using verbal violence and expecting the situation not to escalate to physical violence.  If you want to have peace, you must speak peacefully.

I also don’t believe in going into dangerous situations unnecessarily.  I keep away from places where I’m likely to fall into violence – you can call this personal security, cowardice, or peacefulness if you like: perhaps it’s a bit of all three.

Oh, yeah, I don’t believe in shooting someone over property, either, whether you’re a homeowner or a government.  My TV is not worth killing over.  Nobody’s is, even if it’s 52 inches.

So why was I so fast to write, and effectively, glorify a character who hunts and kills people (vampires, but people-vampires, not rabid beast-vampires) as a vocation?  Looking back, I can think of   reasons:

  • I accepted the cultural acceptance and glorification of “good guy” violence.  It’s there in American, Japanese, Hong Kong/Chinese, and at least some European media (media being the main cultural transmission means), and I pretty much grew up surrounded by it.  Kurt Willems has a great series on nonviolence.  Part 7 addresses “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.”
  •  When my Granddaddy, a World War II veteran, was still alive, I didn’t read the subtext in his conversations about the war.  I knew he only told stories about supply runs and flight-testing repaired airplanes, and virtually none about his combat sorties (and those only in the vaguest terms, as compared to the vivid detail of his other stories).  It never penetrated my soul that the reason he didn’t talk about the combat missions were because they were the worst thing that he’d ever experienced, even though he’d volunteered for the Army Air Corps and volunteered for the combat missions after he’d been in the Air Corps for over two years.  I completely missed the point.
  • As I’ve mentioned before, I really wasn’t paying much attention when I wrote Blood for Blood.  I was just so glad to be writing that I planned a basic Algis Budrys-style 7-point story outline for each section and bulldozed ahead.  There is a lot of good stuff in there, but I was pretty much driving blind.  “Without a vision, the people perish,” as King Solomon said … or, as my friend Nathan says, you have to have intentionality if you want to make something good.

Don’t get me wrong: I like adventure stories.  I like action.  But as my friend Nathan said, “there’s a difference between action and violence.”  It’s always easier to put them both together, but easy isn’t necessarily good.