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Is it plausible for someone to kill in self defense, then feel guilt afterwards?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Roughdragon, Jun 8, 2017.

  1. Roughdragon

    Roughdragon Minstrel

    I'm trying to write a scene where a character is attacked by a scavenger after her village is burned down, and she kills him in self defense. However, as he lay dying, she starts to feel guilt and sympathy towards the dying assailant, and stays by his side until he dies.

    My question is: Would this be plausible? I do not know if this would leave the reader in a state of disbelief.
  2. Letharg

    Letharg Troubadour

    For me it would be extremely plausible as long as the character is not a hardened killer. Acting in self defence one's adrenaline will be pumping like mad and the mind would go into fight or flight behaviour meaning you would take actions you would never take in other situations. Were you then to kill someone, it would not only be plausible for the character to feel guilt but it would be strange not to.

    When characters in books don't feel guilt after their first kill it's usually a sign that they are turning evil or at least are going to take a long wander down the "dark path" only to surface into the light later.
    Simpson17866 and Roughdragon like this.
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Of course it's plausible. Soldiers feel guilt. Policemen feel guilt. And normal every day people would feel guilt.

    At the end of the day, one person ended another person's life. And if a person dwelled on it they would start to wonder if there wasn't another way.
    Roughdragon likes this.
  4. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    I second what the others said. Not sure I agree with not feeling guilt being a mark of villaindom, but certainly I agree with the rest.
    Roughdragon likes this.
  5. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    Maybe not Villaindom, but a lack of empathy towards others is one of the markers of sociopathy.
    At some level I think [and hope] that any life ended is worth grieving.
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Yeah, either direction is believable. Time period and culture would have a good deal to do with this too. Lots of variables, but it works well, especially if the character is coonflicted about fleeing their guilt (something a lot of people would do... just leave them to die, quicker out of sight out of mind). Staying builds a lot of character for the reader, whether it's weakness or strength.
  7. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    Chiming in and adding a little more to what others have said, while agreeing/

    It depends on the character, but yes, definitely guilt for killing someone, even after self defense is reasonable.

    Consider that it could be a vital point in defining that character/characterization. The same would be true if the individual felt no remorse or guilt, or even bragged about what he/she had done in self defense.
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    For me, this is one of those questions that has two answers.

    Can it be done successfully? Yes.

    Should it be done in your particular story? Yes, no, maybe.

    A lot of factors would play into the decision for me, including the cultural milieu, the exigent circumstances, the character's personality and set of beliefs, the nature of that scavenger, what you are trying to show/do by writing that scene and why you are choosing to show that guilt.

    On that last point, I think that if you have a good reason for showing that guilt, if it's important for the story and character, then there are certainly ways to do it that will be more successful than other approaches.

    You've mentioned a worry about the reader's reaction, and I think that's a good concern. I know that for myself, when I've read of kills that felt justified to me, heat of the moment kills of extremely vile characters, and especially also if I've felt a thrill about the MC displaying strength and the ability to survive, then having that character suddenly wilt and becomes mopey and traumatized by guilt can be a major turnoff if I've not already been given clues about such a possible reaction. Let's say I already know this MC comes from a culture that values life above all other things, a pacifist culture perhaps; then, the sudden onset of guilt would be entirely believable and would probably be great to see. (I like seeing characters confronted by reality who are forced to change by that reality or at least are forced to come to a better understanding of their own principles.) Or let's say instead that she deals a mortal wound in the heat of the moment and only a few seconds later realizes this is the same lovable character who'd helped her out two chapters earlier when she was in a moment of danger; there, again, I could see a sudden onset of guilt when she realizes what she's done. These are just some examples, of many potential approaches.
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2017
  9. I think it's totally plausible. A scene in which a character kills in the heat of the moment fueled by adrenaline, then is overcome by shock and horror at what they've done, makes perfect sense to me.
    Nighty_Knight likes this.
  10. Roughdragon

    Roughdragon Minstrel

    Thank you for the replies. To elaborate on the setting of the story, it is based in a late medieval time period when firearms are beginning to be introduced. The main character is a village girl who was burned as a witch, but was resurrected due to a particular mark on her hand. My goal for the protagonist's story arc is for her to be an innocent person in the beginning, then as the story progresses, she faces multiple traumatizing events that slowly turn her towards a darker side. Basically, my aim for this scene is to characterize her as a good-hearted person.
    Netardapope likes this.
  11. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Minstrel

    It takes a lot of training for boot camp to break down the blocks in prospective soldiers minds that would make it hard for them to kill in self-defense without crashing afterward. Even then, it doesn't always work.
  12. Netardapope

    Netardapope Sage

    This is good for your character's arc. That scene should serve as a milestone for the character's progress into darkness. It could be the sort of scene that the reader looks back on and says "Damn, I can't believe this witch girl used to be so innocent."

    You should take advantage of letting the character feel guilt over the death, to contrast it with how she may be more apathetic to murder in the future.

    Sent from my SM-J700M using Tapatalk
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I think this can work wonderfully, but I do think that her reaction should still be foreshadowed in some way.

    I just looked over the second chapter you posted in Showcase, and I'm not sure you've established her as the sort of person who might react with guilt. Is this the story you are talking about here? That's the chapter that ends with her coming into contact with " a dirty, rat-faced man?" Earlier, she declares I don’t care if I have to cut through every goddamned soldier the Battalans can muster, I will have my answers. She's also "almost glad that the villagers died," because of the way they'd basically had false smiles and then let the attempted execution happen. You've sorta already established that she's started her swing to the darker side, heh.

    This isn't to say that she can't still react negatively to killing the man. She's in a moment of transition, perhaps, feeling vindictive and having those thoughts but suddenly confronted with the reality of her own ability to kill another.

    My only concern, which shaded my earlier comment, is the way a sudden, point-blank descent into extreme guilt can come across as a little too on-the-nose or else like a facile attempt to show a character's basic good nature. In other words, I'd think that good nature might need to be established or at least suggested before the reaction. The reaction could reinforce what has already been established rather than be some kind of sudden display of basic goodness used merely to establish, itself, her good nature.

    Incidentally, I think guilt suggests some kind of self-awareness of a transgression against one's own morals, ethics, code of behavior, or ideal. It may be an awareness of transgressing against a social code, also. I don't think guilt, itself, necessarily indicates a good nature; but merely, an awareness of such a transgression. This presupposes the existence of such a code and, for the character who feels it, an awareness of a violation of that code. Killing in self-defense may or may not lead to feelings of guilt, depending on the cultural milieu and the character's own system of beliefs.

    Guilt is a powerful emotion and mental reaction.

    But it's not the only viable one for showing goodness and decency.

    Regret is another possibility. For instance, a person can regret that the situation happened, regret that she was forced to kill, regret that her opponent was indoctrinated into a life of violence, regret that the world is as it is, and still not feel guilt about killing in self-defense. It was necessary, a just killing (i.e., doesn't transgress against a belief system or code), but still regrettable.

    A character can still feel compassion even without feeling guilt. She could kill in self-defense, regret the necessity, feel compassion for the person who is dying, and sit over him to give him company in those moments—without feeling guilt about what she's done.

    These, at least, are my two cents.

    Last edited: Jun 9, 2017
  14. Roughdragon

    Roughdragon Minstrel

    Yeah, I understand the point about the second chapter, and I've already adjusted the scene to make her more of a good-natured character, in google docs, at least.
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I sort of echo FifthView here. My first reaction was that this behavior would work but not if it were in the early chapters. This is a traumatic event. As an author I would want my reader to feel what the character is feeling. To do that, I need to establish a rapport between the reader and the character, and that takes time. If this came after three or four other events were shifting the character in a direction, then this could serve as a culmination or crisis. But if this is the first time we've seen the character do anything difficult, then the scene might feel manipulative, contrived.

    Also, kids in a violent crisis don't usually lash out. They tend to be victims or bystanders. I'm thinking of Bruce Wayne in the alleyway. Or the young Conan seeing his mother murdered. The event forms the background and motivation for the hero's later actions, but the child himself stands helpless and that helplessness is also important.

    Not to say it can't or ought not be done the way you describe. Just offering up some context.
  16. Malik

    Malik Auror

    Way, way more plausible than you would ever imagine.
  17. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    I have a couple of things that relate to this. First, I wrote a book some time ago in which the MC killed another character - a minor evil one. He shot him with arrows, watched him fall even as he tried to strike back, then fell in a camp fire and burned to death. My MC was hurt by that for a couple of reasons. First the man he killed was a wildling like him ie he had some magic and both were part of the same persecuted people. Second one common way that wildlings got killed / executed was to be burned alive, so in effect he had just done that to a fellow wildling - even if he knew he had no real choice.

    My point is that whether you character feels guilt or not - you need to explain it. Justify it to an extent.

    And as a corollary of that, one of the reviews I got back for that work, was that the reader felt the MC should not feel guilt at all. It was self defence. My thought, though I have of course never replied to the reader, was that to suggest that someone shouldn't feel guilt for it, even though it was in self defence, shows a lack of empathy that is worrying. I'm not a sociopath and neither are my MC's.

    My second thought relates to my own family's circle of friends. One of my parent's friends a long time ago, was an ex-commando from WWII. And once when I was a lot younger I remember him telling me about some of his time during the war. The strange almost "Platoon" like state he and his comrades lived in, where they would simply shoot anything that moved and hurl grenades around like they were litter. He described it as an altered state of life. I didn't really understand that at the time. It didn't make a lot of sense.

    But later after he passed I met with his surviving family, and learned a few other things about him. And the two things that stood outfor me was that he never spoke about the war and what he'd done. Neither who he killed nor the friends he lost. And the second was that he was persecuted with bad dreams until the day he died - and that would have been fifty years after the war. After that I sort of got him.

    In order to do what he had done at the time he had had to live in an altered mental state. One where things didn't matter. Where nothing was real. It was that or collapse completely into some sort of mental shock - a breakdown of somesort. And after, when he returned to his real world, he tried to wall that entire episode of his life off. Not to talk about it, think about it etc. Because every so often when the memories returned, it became impossible to pretend that that time had been an illusion. He was never able to deal with the guilt and the horror.

    So yeah, people can kill and do horrible things in times of great need / stress. But coping with it afterwards in the cold light of day is much harder - especially if they are the sort of people who have some empathy for others.

    Cheers, Greg,
    Roughdragon likes this.
  18. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Adding from another direction....

    Yes, it's plausible, but I think unlikely within such a short time frame.

    If you're forced to kill, instinct may take control. Reason, and therefore the ability to feel guilt, may come later.

    For guilt to be almost immediate, I think there would have to be an additional impetus.

    For example, if I'm simply trying to survive and kill a brute of a raider hellbent on murdering me or my loved ones, I'm not likely to feel guilty until much later, when I've had time apart from the killing, to process the fact that I took the life of another human being. Even then, that potential feeling of guilt is subjective. Some will feel guilt, others will not. So, it's not what I'd call a universal understanding, which is what you should be aiming for.

    However, if when I remove the dead raider's mask and see the face of a teenager, someone I'd still consider a child... well, now I have conflicting emotions. I'm torn between my happiness with surviving and defending my loved ones and the guilt associated with killing a child.

    Conflicting emotions are the most powerful.

    Further, the simple act of recognizing the deceased as a child may have the immediate effect of making me feel guilty, especially if there is a reason for that guilt to be immediate.

    Further example:
    Let's assume, when your character was younger, he saw his kid brother die. He always wondered if it was something he could've prevented, but he was just a kid. At least, that's what he's always told himself, but it still haunts him. And here is that same character now, an adult who no longer has the excuse, "I was just a kid". Now he's taken the life of a child. Circumstances be damned, the act brings all those buried wounds to the surface.

    Now, none of that may fit your story, but the point remains. Go beyond simple plausibility. Give it meaning on several levels. Make those conflicting emotions work.
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
    FifthView likes this.
  19. Aurora

    Aurora Sage

    It's possible. There's nothing worse than having to take a life, I think. That sort of experiences leaves people traumatized and with PTSD. I'm certain guilt would be part of it.
  20. RedAngel

    RedAngel Minstrel

    I would certainly say that yes it is quite plausable. Think about the scene description given.

    You mention that the village was just attacked. The first frame of mind this character would have is thinking if the attackers have actually left or if they are going to come back. It is unclear if this character was hiding during the assault on the village or if her family was present or even how large the village was. Or what has transpired in the conflict weather or not her family was killed, what the attackers were attempting to do in the assault on the village. I would assume that either everyone else is either slain, missing, or this character is a lone survivor.

    In any case there appears to be some time that has elapsed since the assault has transpired. In which case I would think that this character would be more apt to have an emotional response for anyone else who has died in this assault. But moreso that she would be experiencing fear or post traumatic stress. That is also assuming she is the sole survivor of this incident and has survived either by hiding and avoiding detection unscathed or being knocked uncouncious or wounded. At first glance though it appears that she seems to know what is going on.

    But the plausability also somewhat hinges on the age of the individual. I could see a younger person feeling guilt quicker than an adult in a similar situation especially after an assault. But also what sort of teachings this person has recieved or their family values. If they were the priestess or someone who seeks justice I would think that they would think differently about it then someone who is a peasant that is constantly being mistreated by a local lord or living in poverty. So I would assume that they are either young or the daughter of someone with privilage who has never been exposed to death directly. Anyone else by that time would probably be used to killing farm animals or skinning for food and less likely to see the killing as anything more then self preservation for survival.

    The other thing to consider is the scavenger him/herself. There seems to be some underlying factor we are not privvu to from the story that causes nearly instant guilt. Perhaps while they are dying they confess that they needed food or money to save their family. Perhaps he is actually not a scavenger at all but someone from outside the village whom is actually there to help. Perhaps it is a family member sneaking around checking on survivors and she accidentally stabs her family member or relative. I feel as though there needs to be some kind of reaction that she has to something the scavenger says or their identity if they are hooded or masked that triggers a response.

    Otherwise like others have suggested the guilt would come later. Especially after everything calms down and she finishes up searching for potential survivors, burying people, gathering supplies, etc. I would suspect some level of guilt would come later after she has had enough time for the event to sink into her brain after she has had some time to think or process the event in her brain. But certainly I would think she would be more concerned about her own people of her village then a random scavenger unless this person shared some kind of connection to her.

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