Gentleness and Aggression in Fiction

As a writer, I have an innate tendency to reject the current trends in literature that highlight what I am going to call the ugly, violent side of humanity. As I look back on the literature that I have loved throughout my own lifetime, it is what I would call a literature of gentleness and caring. In this blog, I decided to try to parse out the different meanings of gentleness, and its opposite aggression, in fiction. If you have ever watched a baby snuggling, you know that gentleness is innate. This strong proclivity for gentle closeness creates continuity in our societies.

Gentleness in Fiction

Gentleness may be depicted in fiction regarding settings and characters. It is also often associated with animals. If a setting is described as gentle, the author may be depicting a sense of peacefulness or tranquility. When I use these terms, what comes to mind is a place I always envision in my meditations. The scene reflects the beautiful valley where I grew up. It is a peaceful valley, with gently sloping green hills, and the musical sound of crinkling aspen leaves. Creating a sense of gentle summer breezes tends to draw the reader into the sensations and visualizations of a relaxing comfortable scene.

Writers can use gentleness to describe characters with mild or calm personalities. For example, the author might use gentleness to depict the tenderness of a loving relationship, a caring situation with an invalid, or parents with a newborn baby. Kathryn Forbes’s novel, Mama’s Bank Account, tells the story of a gentle but enterprising mother. To give her fretting children a sense of financial security, she tells them not to worry because she has a bank account. As adults, the children learn that her bank account was fictional. Her calm demeanor and gentle lie created a safety net for her children.

Gentleness in fiction is also often used to depict tender relationships between characters and animals. A scene with birds chirping at the window in the morning is designed to calm and comfort the characters and the reader. Many novels that depict gentle animals live on through several generations of readers. Think about a restless, unhappy boy who finds his way with the aid of a dog in Lassie Come Home. Or the story of a lonely worn out woman servant who finds the gentleness and sociability of a parrot to be a saving grace, as in Flaubert’s beautiful story, Un Coeur Simple. Another example is the young adolescent girl who finds out who she is when she interacts with a horse in Black Beauty. These stories of gentleness and love have elicited an enduring readership.

Aggression in Fiction

Aggression in fiction also relates to settings, characters, and animals. To create a setting where aggression is a dominant force, the author could choose a site that is threatening in and of itself, perhaps with jagged cliffs, or high stone walls. The weather could be bleak. The wind ruthless. The setting could depict an invasion or an attack. Imagine, for example, the battle scenes in J. R. R. Tolkien’s battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings.

The characters could be engaged in violent behavior against one another. A leader could be dealing with a belligerent underling. Brutal assaults could cause injury. A defensive line could be thrown back by the onslaught of a bellicose offensive. Cruel, callous raids, or sexual aggressions could be made against defenseless people despite their pleas for compassion.

In such a scene, aggression toward animals could involve the killing of steeds or the destruction of domestic animals. The aggressors could strike down guard dogs or even pets. Despite the fact that writing these paragraphs on aggression gives me a personal stomachache, many such novels have ardent followers.

Aggression in Recent Fiction

This month, I read Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, an ecophilosopher. The book is not fiction but rather a blend of natural history and memoir. However, it is an excellent example of gentleness contrasted with aggression in life and in writing. Haupt intertwines the story of Mozart’s pet starling with her own story of raising one. She literally steals the unfeathered hatchling to save its life before park rangers destroy all the starling nests and baby birds. Her goal is to raise and observe her starling whom she names Carmen, a synonym for “song.” She cares for it like a mother, feeding it every 20 minutes, keeping it at 85 degrees Fahrenheit, building it appropriate habitats, and gently loving it, as it appears to love her. She juxtaposes her own gentleness with the government’s and birders’ aggressions against starlings in the USA. For example, it is illegal to raise starlings as pets but legal to destroy them because they are an invasive species in North America.

In Camron Wright’s novel, The Rent Collector, the aggressive attack of the Khmer Rouge on Cambodians serves as the inciting incident that drives the rent collector’s life choices. A young husband realizes that he may need to be aggressive against attackers to protect his wife and child. Yet in the same novel gentleness is shown to be a trait of friends and animals. A gentle youth averts the attempted kidnapping and sale of a young girl into sexual slavery through the assistance of cooperative adults. An old woman lies down to die with a dying elephant that has been wounded by aggressive fire. When it dies, she gently covers the elephant’s corpse to protect it from scavengers. Her interaction with the elephant gives her the courage to continue living.

Gentleness and Aggression in My Own Fiction

My first novel deals with forms of gentleness and aggression in the realm of characterization. My second novel has an eccentric old codger who is surprisingly gentle. In my third novel, I think I will add a pet of some kind because two of the characters are adolescents who need some comfort.

After I had almost finished this blog, I decided to do an online search on my topic for this month. I was delighted to find Maxwell Sater’s piece, “What We Need Right Now is the Gentle Novel,” on his website Thus, I will end with a quote from him, “I am, more than anything, a reader of novels, and I was inspired to think of gentleness as an aesthetic category by one particular novel: The Ambassadors, by Henry James.” I think Maxwell Sater and I agree that it is time for writers who prefer gentleness to move to the forefront of editors’ slush piles once again.

My Writing Goals for 2021

Revise and complete a final edit of my first novel, sending it out for review by December 7, 2021:

During the month of April, I put my first novel on the shelf to rest—so I could rest as well.

Complete a revised draft of my second novel by December 7, 2021:

Recently, I followed the advice of friends on a Twitter feed. They recommended using the “Read Aloud” function in Word to listen to my own work. Even though the computer voice is a bit robot-like, it was fascinating to listen to the draft of my second novel. My characters’ personalities shone through the robotic voice which really pleased me.

Add 25,000 words to my third novel by December 7, 2021:

Since my original goal for this item was to write 25,000 words during RMFW’s NovelRama (which was canceled this spring), I have adjusted this goal to add 25,000 new words to this novel by the end of the year.

Send Moon Chimes: Poems to a poetry contest and publish the Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences:

Winners of the contest I entered will be announced by the end of May.

I did more research for the workbook.

Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

Boulder Writers Alliance: I worked with the BWA Newsletter Committee on our upcoming new newsletter. In Gary Alan McBride’s BWA group, Writers Who Read, we shared what we had learned from studying Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. In Ferrante’s novel, the main character, an adolescent, becomes aware that what she thought was true about her family is not. She learns to prevaricate about her own behaviors.

Denver Women’s Press Club: I attended Zoom workshops with Juana Bordas on multicultural leadership; Dr. Dow Phumiruk on her second career as an author and illustrator of children’s books; and Andrea Moore who discussed her process and read her poetry.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers: I did not attend any meetings with RMFW in April. I did, however, attend the Pikes Peak Writers’ virtual conference on writing novels from April 23-25.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2021:

Today is May 7, 2021, I am posting my fifth blog of 2021. Writing this blog continues to intrigue me because putting my mental ruminations down in print helps me clarify to myself what I like or don’t like about what I have drafted. It also helps me perceive what is missing.

Real life and fiction have collided in my world this spring. Thus, I took solace in writing more poetry and in listening to other writers.

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