I don’t blog often (which I hardly need tell you), because I’m really not the sort who likes the sound of her typing – but this week I thought I’d weigh in on the subject that everyone’s talking about: The Walking Dead.
This isn’t going to be a rehash of every other article out there, I hope; I won’t be discussing the choice of victims or whether TV censorship stood have toned it down a little. I’m more interested in the writers’ approach to the subject. I’ve thought about it a lot in the last few days, and I’ve come to one conclusion:
Their approach to gore and violence is very different from my own.
Anyone who’s read Dark and Before Dark knows I’m not shy of blood and guts when called for. I’ve hacked my way through vampires galore and shown countless gallons of blood. I’ve burnt them alive. I’ve even, on one occasion, blown one up. But none of that disturbs me, and The Walking Dead premiere last week did. Before Dark was unashamedly torture porn, and many reviews I’ve read described this week’s episode of TWD as just that. But there’s a difference. And I think it makes all the difference when it comes to the audience’s comfort level. That difference? It lies in whom the violence is directed at and how permanent the damage done.
When I kill vampires in a variety of nasty ways, there’s a degree of separation between us and them. They may be sentient, but they’re not human. Something in our brain recognises the dehumanisation of them and bypasses whatever it is in our brain that recoils from gore. The same is true of TV zombies. But what The Walking Dead did was show us staggering levels of violence directed at main characters, people we’d grown with over years of viewing and felt we knew. They were being beaten to death in front of people who loved them. That added emotional dimension made watching it pretty nauseating, and left a bad aftertaste for a lot of people (of course there are always people that love that stuff).
There’s also the question of permanence. Before Dark may have been torture porn, but at the end of the day we all knew that Phillip was going to be okay. Even if you had never read Dark and had no idea who he was to become, I didn’t hide it: the non-linear narrative showed him waking up after his rescue before we even got to see what had happened to him. Somehow it’s different when death is involved; many readers or viewers love to see their characters suffer up to a point, but hate to see them die (again, there are also death-lovers out there). I never found Phillip’s ordeal distasteful, although I worried many, many times that I was going too far. Guess I needn’t have!
I remember that I originally wrote it as a short story; it showed Phillip’s capture and torture, and his ultimate rescue, but nothing else. When I showed it to my beta reader, she read it and said: “It’s too depressing.” And she was right. That was when I came up with the concept of showing his introduction to the Temple around the narrative of his time with the vampires; I added in his escape attempt and Anna’s seduction of him to further the development of his guilt complex and also his martyr complex, the driving forces behind his becoming an agent. But most importantly I decided to show his early days with Stryke, and how that relationship gave him hope of rebuilding his life. That 6,000 word short story ballooned into a 50,000 word novel, and progressed from a piece I didn’t much like to a book I’m really proud of – and all because of one key factor. The new version had hope in it. It underpinned the story and put a whitewash over those violent scenes that, alone, had been bleak and unpleasant. I think that’s my point about the Season 7 Premiere of The Walking Dead: it lacked that underpinning of hope and the promise of recovery. It didn’t feel as if anything good could come of the situation.
Now, I’m not claiming to be a better writer than them, because they’ve blown me away at times – it just highlights a fundamental difference in our attitudes towards the craft. Robert Kirkman, Scott Gimple, et al clearly like to shock their viewers whenever they can, and make decisions based on how much bang they can get for their buck. But because of my history with depression, I see entertainment as a chance to escape, a chance to show people a world that won’t screw them over. I want to make people feel good, not bad. So all my work has this one, fundamental element, that I will never set out deliberately to depress them. It might happen by accident, and if does then I’m sorry for that . . . but never out of spite.
And you can take that to the bank and cash it.