The "Gore Factor"
Question: So, my stories are high fantasy in that they are in "medieval" type settings and are in fictional worlds, but I don't use magic or fantastical creatures quite so much. I do more of "fictional histories"; basically telling the story of a fictional character in the same way that people today tell of famous figures like Alexander the Great or Attila the Hun. Almost like a fictional biography. I know I'm being far too broad, but it's hard to explain. Basically, I'm so fascinated by the stories of real conquerors in the Ancient World, that I wanted to create my own: Conquerors fighting their own campaigns. My problem is that my conquerors, like many real ones, are brutal. Attila's cruelty is legendary, and one of my figures is inspired largely from Vlad III, for starting examples. So, in a world of fictional brutal conquerors inspired by real brutal conquerors, how much of their brutality should I relay to the reader? That is to say, how much am I allowed to put in?
Also, I don't at all want to have these stories be nothing but gore-fests. I really want to tell the tales of great (though sometimes disturbed) warriors and their lives, but I don't want their to be any doubt as to their grotesque reputations and how they are well(or ill)-deserved. So how do you think I should convey the violence of the executions and war-scenes and so on, and describe them, as well as develop the characters and show them to be more than mindless war-machines? Thank you!Answer:
The simple answer (though it may sound like a cop-out) is that you write what feels right to you, so that you tell the story you want to tell, that means something to you.
How much gore? The
amount that feels right and true to the story at that particular point. There is no god or ministry of poetry who sets down the rules of how much violence is too much.
There is something like an imaginary line which delineates what is right for your story. But it's not like a boundary you must be afraid to cross. It's more like a throughline that you must stick close to and not stray too far from. The line is an imaginary ideal way to tell your story. No one ever feels they can stay right on that line, but you do know when you've strayed too far from it because the story won't feel right any more. The line may lead you into areas you feel uncomfortable going, or places you didn't expect to go. But if you avoid going to those places (straying from the line), the story won't be as moving.
There are also times when inserting gratuitous violence would pull you away from the line, because it would take away from the real story that has more to do with the characters.
You'll know when you've stuck close to the line because, the story will feel dead on right to you.
As for your second question, the answer is in the question. If you don't want your characters to be mindless, show that they have a mind and feelings. Show your main character's inner conflict. Let him see that others have inner conflicts. Make the pressure and challenges be internal as well as external. Show many sides to your characters. Give them feelings and needs and wants and opinions and likes and dislikes and justifications, just like real people. Don't lose sight of what makes them real people, even in the heat of battle.
Best of luck.