I had a nightmare last night. A zombie had a nibble of my hand and Officer Rick Grimes kindly lopped it off. The ensuing trouble didn’t come from fending off undead hordes with just one hand, it came on the toilet. Turns out wiping your backside with your left hand is pretty tricky. To those who know me the idea that my mind is in the toilet would not be surprising, but I still feel a bit disappointed. In a dream state I’d rather be brain bashing the walking dead than trying unsuccessfully to use my left hand in a potentially sticky situation.
Fantasy fighting is unrealistic for obvious reasons, the practicalities of injuries not the least. Rick Grimes has both of his hands in ‘The Walking Dead’ TV show but in the comic books – he lost his hand to the Governor. Has his disability held him back? Not a bit of it. He’s a one-handed death-dealing dervish, sucking zombies up and spiting them out like the bullets from his impressive handgun. But how does he deal with going to the loo? Especially out in the wild. I mean, just the balancing act must be a skill in itself, let alone the final polish.
Stories lose their magic when the reader considers the real basis of the fantasy. Take the movie ‘Cars’. Brilliantly animated, a simple and effective storyline, a few witty one-liners and some engaging characters. What’s not to like? Well, I can’t get past the fact that the world doesn’t work. In the film there’s a joke about hot leather seats. Who’s going to sit on them? As soon as that question’s in my head the whole world falls down. Who makes the cars? How do they build this world without opposable thumbs? ‘Toy Story’ meanwhile works on every level because it has the simplest answer: magic. The toys come alive when no one is around. I can get on board with that. And, nightmares aside, I’m happy that a one-handed man can survive and even flourish in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world; they after all much slower than him, and his buddies can keep watch while he has his extended behind-the-tree time.
Leaving believability aside for a moment, writing a fight is fun. Smashing skulls, kicking groins, punching faces, twirling swords, pumping guns, swinging clubs. Fun, fun, fun. Too much fun and easily over done. Less is very definitely more when it comes to the old rough and tumble. As an aside, Transformers movies seem to forget this and by the end of the movie itself everything is forgotten in a haze of metal-on-metal violence that was difficult to make sense of and even harder to see who was hitting who. The question of why was long forgotten, resting as it does in a sort of a plot pit, surfacing only when the robots are having a breather and Megan Fox’s arse is briefly covered.
Less is very definitely more – certainly when it comes to Fox’s shorts. I’d love to describe in detail the squashing of a zombie’s skull as I, one-handed, take a chair leg to it over and over again, beating it until the thwacks turn into thumps, turn into wet splats, like smacking red custard. Episodes of ‘The Walking Dead’, TV and comic book, always have at least one fight, but the writers carefully make sure that, while these fights punctuate the overall story, they rarely dominate. The discipline shown by Kirkman et al is impressive and inspiring for all of us wannabes.
So, how do I get my enjoyment? And for whose enjoyment is it? Mine or the reader’s? (The reader is an annoyance in writing. I know that that sounds a little harsh, and if any of my readers are out there, I love you really, but you’re a pain when it comes to enjoying myself.) Will the reader want more or less? They probably want less, but I want more!
Self indulgence is, however, like a deep puddle and a fast car, fun for the driver but not so much for the bus queue. For a writer, the temptation to cover the page in blood, to drive through that red puddle and splatter the reader in gore is strong. I resist. Mostly. Probably not as well Kirkman, but I do at least I try to resist. Violence, and particularly fast-paced action, is fun. It’s fun because it’s scary and somehow more real than the regular interactions of characters. These are the moments when Rick Grimes could die. These are the moments when the character’s story could end, even though the book is still thick in your right hand, so you know that it won’t. But even with that knowledge, the character’s weaknesses are exposed. The reader can feel scared for them. Superman will never lose a fight – unless someone brings kryptonite, Rick Grimes will never lose to a zombie – unless he’s only got one hand. Believable? Doesn’t matter. It’s the unrealism of the violence and the belief in the risk that makes it fun. A deep puddle of blood is not believable and is even desensitising, a few drops here and a few splats there, even if they eventually add up to a bath full, are infinitely more scary – and should contribute to a reader’s nightmares. One-handed toilet trips or not.