Up until around the early-through-mid 1800's (of the real world, for clarification), the rights of criminals, disabled people, and the poor were commonly ignored. As a result, the justice system was swayed heavily against these groups of people, and the prisons were beyond inhumane, with their residents being treated as far less than animals.

I am writing a fantasy story that is meant to capture the sheer savageness of those places in the dark times before the Prison Reform. You can tell just by reading the historical summary it's based on that the place, situation, and overall theme of the book is supposed to be overwhelmingly brutal.

And yet when I actually sit down to write the book, it always comes out soft. I'm not sure if I respect my character's lives too much or what, but the violence is never as bad, the living conditions are never as terrible, and the whole sense of the book is never as vicious as I want it to be or plan it to be.

It's not that I don't try to make it feel that way. It just... doesn't.

So my grand, overarching question is pretty much the title: How do I make a place/situation seem brutal, and prevent this theme from (for lack of a better term) being lost in translation?

  • I'm so tempted to change the opening sentence to Up until around the early-through-mid 2100's ... but maybe that should be 2200s? Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 6:42

2 Answers 2


Vivid Settings:

There's nothing wrong with EDL's answer; reactions are important to give context to the situation. I think, though, you want to be giving your readers a concrete image in their minds of the horrifying conditions. Introduce a little horror into each thing, rather than make a long string of ghastly description. But it should be ghastly.

The key to the setting being truly horrific is to describe the minutiae of misery. The Water isn't dirty, it smells like urine, with unidentified bits of brown floating in it. The food isn't maggot-ridden, instead the character debates if they should squish or eat the maggots (decided by if the character thinks they are too hungry versus if eating the bugs will make them vomit), finally deciding to squish all the food to crush the maggots into the food before it is eaten (at which point the character gets violent diarrhea and can't hold down food anyway). The prisoner doesn't have infected skin, he gets beaten for begging to have his gangrenous hand cut off so as not to die.

Try to engage all senses and as vividly as possible. Use harsh, unpleasant descriptors for every situation, not just information. Show don't tell, so if it's cold, ice forms in the water and drinking it hurts tender gums. If it's hot, even the walls sweat and the water is tepid.


Describing the casual brutality of your world is often insufficient, to convey its terribleness. Sharing horrible things like cows pimping out baby chicks and nuns selling hashish from their nunneries have little impact on their own.

But, adding character reactions to those brutal events, through narrative and dialog gives you an added dimension to make an impact. If a character observes an underserved beating, for instance, how they react is an opportunity to illustrate the impacts of cruelty and brutality on the human psyche and how different their culture is from our relatively peaceful and justice-loving society.

I think a difficult aspect of this is to avoid using modern or contemporary sensibilities about violence. What we would consider grotesque, they might consider a Tuesday. Having the character react dully or with insensitivity will distance them from the reader. Maybe they could react strongly, but for the wrong reasons. Like intervening in the beating, because the it was the character’s waiter that was getting beat up and it would deal his dinner.

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