In a conversation at our dining room table about the opening of my new work in progress, Valor’s Worth, my husband brought it to my attention that there was a line in the segment that he felt went over the edge in terms of graphic content. This came as a surprise to me, given previous discussions we’ve had about my needing to make bad situations more clearly horrible for my characters. I tend to not want to dwell on horror beats in my work, though the fact is, if I am going to write content that involves monsters and war, that is a place I need to be willing to go, and so I’ve been working on that.
One of the primary gripes I have observed from readers who give poor reviews of speculative fiction written by Christian authors is that the villains in the stories seem hokey or soft. I think those of us who have lived very long in Christian circles begin to develop amnesia or blindness about just how depraved a truly diabolical person can be, not just in his actions, but in his thought life. I can appreciate that criticism, because honestly, I’ve thought it myself about more than one book I’ve read. So when I wrote the opening chapter of Valor’s Worth from the bad guys’ point of view, it seemed important to me to establish that one member of the pair of villains involved was especially despicable.
My opening chapter involves the abduction of three young girls by a dragon-kin (a sort of crocodile man with horns and wings) priest and his scribe. The girls naturally cry out for help from their mother when the bad guys get a hold of them, and then came the line that put the situation over the top for my hubby.
The priest/abductor addresses the eldest girl’s scream for help by saying, “It’s no good my lambs. Mama is busy trying to tuck her innards back where they belong.”
In my mind, this line conveyed that the villain, Hanash, was of the psychotic sort that would be pleased to verbalize to children that he had just disemboweled their mother. I did not describe the visual of this when they later passed the corpse, just that the girl the point of view character was carrying shuddered and fell silent. Because I firmly agree that in the best reads, the hero must be up against an opponent who is both awful enough and competent enough to cast doubt as to whether the hero can really beat him, I chose to make the diabolical duo just these things. Could I convey that by merely saying Hanash cleared the way for his companion to run by with two of the captives? Not and elevate the stakes to a point of really seeming dire, in my opinion.
I don’t really need to start a debate here as to where my particular scene falls on the spectrum of horrific content, since those opinions will vary from reader to reader, of course. But what I do ask is this: if your intended audience is not children, whose innocence I fully believe we as adults have a responsibility to protect, how important is it to convey the depravity of your villains at a realistic level? Is there any danger to a writer in spending time ruminating on the workings of evil minds? Because as I see it, there really isn’t another route to crafting truly believable bad guys.