My WIP is a crime fiction told from the perspective of the criminals. I’m having a hard time figuring out when a scene should come to violence. How do I know when my characters would fight and when they wouldn’t?
Wow, thank you for this question. No one has ever asked me this. Challenge accepted. Let’s jump right in.
First, in deciding whether or not a scene should have violence, we should consider the temperament of your criminal characters. If they are volatile, impulsive, arrogant, have an antisocial personality disorder, or are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, it’s reasonable they are more likely to inflict harm. Even benign encounters with these types of characters can result in barbarity.
Second, we have to take a hard look at the “why” behind the action. Nothing has a greater impact on a fight, both on and off the page, than why it is happening. In my WDU course, What You Need to Know Before Writing Fight Scenes, Battles, and Brawls, I cover four ways that the “why” impacts the fight. The first of those relates directly to your question: the “why” determines what is at stake.
What your criminals have to gain or lose will determine whether or not they inflict harm. Now, I’m not talking about characters prone to violence for reasons I mentioned earlier. I mean regular folks who have turned to crime and, yes, regular folks turn to crime. Why? Exactly. There’s a reason. And, that reason is enough to make them forsake what they know to be lawful and believe to be moral.
What your character stands to lose has to be important enough to them that they are willing to harm another to keep it. Simple as that.
Now, if you are still struggling on deciding whether a character might turn to violence, there’s an actual matrix for determining whether a person poses a physical threat. It was created by threat assessment specialist Gavin deBecker and is known as JACA. The purpose of JACA is to assess whether a violent intention, stated verbally or in writing, has the potential to become a violent incident. We as writers can use it as a tool to create characters and scenarios ripe for violence.
To create a suitable environment where violent intention leads to a violent act, be sure your character fits all of the following:
Justification – The character should feel that their violent actions are justified.
Alternatives – They should believe there are truly no alternatives to violence.
Consequences – They are not concerned about the consequences of their actions.
Ability – The character must have the ability to carry out the threat.
Notice that neither of the As there are for “anger.” Anger just isn’t enough to send a character “full JACA.” However, what that anger stems from might be. Anger is a secondary emotion. We resort to it to protect ourselves or cover our vulnerabilities. The primary inciting emotion is generally felt immediately before the anger. However, sometimes the temperamental response happens so quickly that we don’t have a chance to pinpoint it. If your character becomes so angry that they become violent, you need to know what underlying feelings have incited that anger.
Some primary feelings that can incite anger are fear, feeling rejected or disrespected, shame, embarrassment, insecurity, envy, regret, grief, exhaustion, the list goes on and on. So, if you are going to chalk up your character’s violence to anger, know why they are angry. It will be the why behind your fight and can impact the intensity, style, and speed of combat.
There’s one more thing to consider before your character lashes out. Where there is violence, there is evidence. This is especially true of hand-to-hand violence. Scrutinize the scene of your crime. Stand back and look around at the exits and anything else your criminal may have touched. Dust them all for fingerprints. Get on your hands and knees and scan the floor for hair and clothing fibers and tread marks from shoes. Check under the fingernails of the victim, note any bruising, be sure that any blood is only that of the victim and not the assailant.
On that note, I interviewed a crime scene cleaner on my podcast. He said the circle of blood we see on the floor pales in comparison to the pool underneath the floor. That pool can flow to other rooms or apartments and remain undetected from the original site of the crime. If some of that blood is that of your criminal and they have prior convictions, they might as well leave a business card at the scene. Be aware that a little blood goes a long way. A circle of blood the size of your fist measures out to about a tablespoon and a half in volume.
If you need your character to commit a hand-to-hand, violent crime, consider taking the fight outside. There are places, weather conditions, and times of year that will lessen their likelihood of getting caught. That said, there are times of year when your character is less likely to commit a violent act at all. Check out my book for all that information as well as details on injuries, bleeding out, the appearance of wounds by guns and knives, stages of decomposition, all kinds of info you need for the types of characters you have. If you write a fight, you need to know the physical ramifications of it.
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Ok, let's sum this up. Here’s the least you need to know. Your character will resort to violence if they have pre-existing violent tendencies or are under the influence of alcohol/drugs and if they have the right “why.” That “why” will be linked to what is at stake. If you want to create a realistic, violent mindset for your criminal, be sure they have plenty of JACA. Lastly, bear in mind that when you write violence, you are also writing evidence by default, so know what that violence does to the human body.
I hope that answers your question. I talk about this further in my book as well as in my WDU course. Give them a look. Also, hop over to my blog at FightWrite.net. Peruse the index. There’s lots of good stuff there to further help you. Check the More FightWrite tab for links to my podcast and YouTube channel. Aaaaaand, keep sending your questions my way. I love them.
Until next month with FightWrite™ on Writer’s Digest, stay well, write lots, and have yourself a blessed holiday.
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