They didn’t shirk from danger, whether it be breaking into a wizard’s lair to purloin a rare jewel, battling hordes of evil minions, or challenging the gods themselves. Violence — the bloody conflict between brawny people with big, pointy weapons — was their meat and mead.
And when it came time to unleash my inner voices and craft my own tales, I drew most heavily upon the works of those old masters. At first, I didn’t delve much into my own motivations for doing so. It was enough that I was writing stories that I enjoyed and that (eventually) others seemed to like as well.
But what was I doing? All this fictional bloodshed and the mountains of imaginary bodies piled up before the altar of reading entertainment — what was it good for? Is it wrong for me to perpetuate a style of literature where problems are so often solved with swords and arrows?
(Okay, I want to pause here and tell you that when I read back that last line, my initial reaction is, “Hell no! I’m doing a public service!” Back to the article.)
When I was planning Shadow’s Son, the first book in my Shadow Saga, the main character Caim was originally going to be a thief by profession. I even played with the idea of portraying him as a pacifist, a sort of anti-Conan. Yet, I eventually came to the conclusion that the story would be more satisfying to… well, to me, for starters… if I changed him to an assassin. Still roguish and anti-establishment, but with a much higher THAC0.
Perhaps I should have felt a little guilty about that, but it opened up a world of new conflicts and tensions for the story. And it changed my perception of the character more than I thought it would. Caim went from a passive hero to a highly aggressive presence, dominating scene after scene in a way that was thrilling to write.
Also, it allowed me delve into the complex issues of what happens after the violence is over. How does a person react to a life-and-death fight — physically and emotionally? What does a lifetime of violence do to a person’s psyche? And those are the questions that really resonated with me throughout the series.
So, to answer my own question, what is war (violence) good for? I think it’s revealing. I’ve often said that writing a fight scene is a lot like writing a sex scene. There needs to be emotional content — feelings that drive the action — or it’s all just blood-spattered puppetry.
When I think back to Robert E. Howard’s Conan, he fought to defend himself (which happened a LOT, considering he was a huge, muscular barbarian), to defend others, and to punish the wicked. That barbaric code of honor was one of the things that made him such an interesting character. He lived in a violent world, and he met it head-on without flinching.
As a reader, I think there’s something noble in that. As a writer, it’s a wellspring of inspiration.
Nope, I don’t feel one bit guilty. While my characters don’t always reach for a sword or crossbow to solve all their problems — and some of them are downright nice people — it’s reassuring to know that some of them are willing to fight, and even kill, for their convictions.
Jon Sprunk is the author of the Shadow Saga (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master). The first book of his new epic fantasy series, Blood and Iron, will be released in March 2014. He is also a mentor at the Seton Hill University Writing Program. For more on his life and works, visit www.jonsprunk.com.