Time Magazine’s March 11 issue features a cover story about Oscar Pistorius, Olympic athlete and accused murderer. A little later on, it includes an article called “Serial Killing” about the addiction of television drama to blood. The link is the idea of a “culture of violence” in South Africa, where Pistorius felt he had to shoot first to defend himself and his (he thought) sleeping girlfriend, and in America where “The Game of Thrones” and dozens of other series build up layers of violence like an Old Master painting with oils. And we like to talk and think and act as if all of this is new, and somehow, beneath us.
But the student of history knows better. Roman gladiators, Aztec games that ended with human sacrifice, centuries of public executions all featuring jeering crowds, chanting for more. My period was no different. Executions were public affairs, intended to make a statement about the serious nature of the crime, and to warn off other criminals. Even when there wasn’t a war (rare, during the time of the Hundred Years’ War) knights participated in tournaments designed to keep them fit and leaving many wounded or even dead as a result.
Yet we like to think of Mankind as a species that abhors violence, that is only violent when pushed to extremes. We are startled and offended by our own taste in entertainment–even in an era which no longer encourages people to bring picnics to watch a battle, as they sometimes did during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. I’ve had to face the question myself when I confront the level of violence in my writing. Why do we watch it? Why are we drawn to it? Are we all just sick and depraved, or destined to become shooters ourselves because we don’t care about our fellow human beings?
No. In fact, I would argue that violence is compelling precisely *because* we care. One of the aspects of writing, of entertainment in general, is conflict. Inherent in manufactured conflict is the question of what is at stake. As authors/entertainers, we want the stakes to be high–we want the characters to have a lot to lose, so that, if they win, the payoff is greater, and if they lose the pathos is more tragic.
When an author puts a sympathetic character’s life on the line, he is creating a rooting interest for his audience. The higher the stakes, the more excited the reader becomes. In the hands of a skilled author, an invented being of words that unspool in the mind of the reader, or of images and attitudes portrayed by an actor, takes on the aspect of genuine humanity. We watch because we worry. Because we fear for that person and want him to live. We want him to be victorious over his enemies, to vanquish his own fears and accomplish great things.
We watch the Olympics for similar reasons: high stakes competition. Someone will win; many others will lose. Even people who don’t generally like sports will watch the Olympics and track the results.
And when our hero fails–when the character dies or is defeated, when the sportsman loses, when the runner who carried our dreams has descended into a nightmare–we watch in mutual devastation. We wonder what went wrong, what choices were made or left to chance that might have changed the outcome. Because of our rooting interest, we now feel justified in having our own opinions and reactions. The criminal on the gallows deserves to hang–or perhaps is a victim in his own right. What would I have done, if it were me?
High stakes situations, in life and in fiction, compel our attention not because we revel in violence, but because we care about people. Stories that place a sympathetic protagonist at risk for great loss are inherently compelling to the viewer, and it is precisely our shared humanity that makes it so.