Why Sex and Violence?
The other day, I realized that important clues about Ben’s identity are pictured in the action of Max’s two car wrecks during his first weeks in Annapolis and also in the wreck that happens in front of the quilt store. This was not planned by the author, me. But in the terrible violence, these nuggets of truth came out.
Why I wondered, and from where did these ideas come?
Before I began writing this draft of Solomon’s Puzzle, I studied writing and literature. One respected writer claimed that in order to write about a flesh and blood individual, one must tell the story as if one is studying an amoeba or a rat in a maze, that is, one must study his birth, his sex and his death. This made sense to me, but I thought it was not quite enough. If the writer is the kind of writer who is an observant student of humanity, who is also a seeker of God and truth, then that writer must study more about the character. That writer must understand the character’s birth, work, home, thoughts, sex and death. This should also apply to female characters.
But the task of the fiction writer is to describe, in narration, and dramatize by showing in dramatic action and dialogue the complexities of the character’s soul.
The character’s birth and death are vital for characterization, for setting and for history and background. Death sometimes begins a fictional work, sometimes resolves it. I object to death by suicide in fiction. I think it is a cheap way out for the authour, an unthinking, lazy way to end a work of fiction. Consider instead George Orwell’s heartbreaking and perfectly right ending to 1984. Had Winston Smith committed suicide instead of raising his grimy glass of Victory Gin to Big Brother, I would have thrown the book across the room. Instead I was appalled one final time, I was shaken, I sobbed, I will never, ever forget the power of that book’s ending.
To understand a character’s sex is essential in fictional work because sex is not only intensely personal but it is also an act with eternal importance and consequences. And if it is dramatized with purpose, it shows the character’s unique connection to eternity. Think of Rose of Sharon in Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, (which ought to be read in every American high school despite culture or religion). Her earthy sexiness gets her a baby and her baby gives her an initial, though incomplete connection to life, which through the struggles and tragedy of the plot, grows to be a symbolically important mission to preserve what the author has convinced us by the last page, to be a most fragile humanity.
Thoughts of work and home were important to me because this is where life is lived. A character’s thoughts include fears, hopes, prayers and dreams. Isn’t this something we want to know about our friends? When do we trust Jim in Twain’s book? We begin to trust him when his life skills keep Huck’s body and soul together. He can build a raft, he can navigate down a wild river, he can fish and build a fire. And in Jim’s conversation and memories, we see his agony over his failures, his longing for his family’s well-being. We see his noble humanity.
Another writer I studied claimed that war stories were the most useful and natural setting for good fiction because the extreme situations of war naturally demanded that the essential qualities of people be flexed. If one could not write about war, one should write about sports (a sort of war) or find some way to demonstrate in the setting the universally understood, the “important” moments in life.
If the writer, instead, writes about such things as washing the car or delivering the paper, the action itself has not the importance needed to create an interesting, important story. Instead while washing the car something else, something of universal importance—such as falling in love—must happen.
Readers and other people complain about gratuitous sex and violence. I understand this complaint. Upsetting or astonishing events in fiction are acceptable only if they communicate the truth about the character and therefore the truth about humankind. Therefore sex and violence (or really any action in the plot) are acceptable in fiction if they dramatize pertinent ideas, making it possible for the author and then the readers to think about these ideas because they have been shown in a concrete and palpable, sensory way that the abstract mind can study, analyze and eventually understand.
The writer accomplishes this presentation of ideas by creating a plot, which is made up of things happening in an order that reveals charatcer and creates suspense. Underlining the plot are the literary elements—that is symbolism, imagery, etc. For instance, in my novel, Solomon’s Puzzle, the main character’s name was chosen for its symbolic meaning. (Well, all the characters names were chosen for meaning even if that meaning was ironic). Ben’s surname, Hunter, defines his archetypical role: he is the one in the book who must discover, who wants more than anything to know and to find truth.
But back to the car crashes… while I was writing, I often saw the Solomon’s Puzzle characters in a still sort of picture and I had to think about that, peering at it in my imagination (during faculty meetings, ice hockey practices) to figure out what was happening. Sometimes an entire scene would drop into my mind.
It’s funny to me that the symbolism and the clues to the mystery arose in the scenes though their revelation was not planned. My goal was to show the truth about Ben’s struggle and situation. Because I was writing about justice and fatherhood, kindness and cruelty, the violence of the car crashes, the carelessness of them, the willfulness at the root of them seemed right to show Ben’s frightening situation.