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On Killing

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Philip Overby, Mar 15, 2014.

  1. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    Myke Cole wrote an insightful blog post about killing and violence in fantasy fiction and how it rarely measures up to reality, no matter how gritty it's perceived to be. We may have badass characters who kill all sorts of people and creatures in their stories, but how does it effect them? How do you deal with killing in your stories? Is it just something that happens or do you try to put emotional weight behind it?

    On Killing | Myke Cole
    AnneL and teacup like this.
  2. Noma Galway

    Noma Galway Archmage

    My MC has flashbacks a lot. She dreams about it, and she hates that she did it. However, her chosen path is as an assassin, so she is very haunted at all times. But the Shadow is the only place where she feels safe.

    Bri, on the other hand, doesn't actually kill...not really. She's controlling someone else when she kills. She has fun with it. She is in no danger when she does it, and she doesn't really view who she is killing as people, so it doesn't affect her nearly as much as it affects my MC.
  3. teacup

    teacup Auror

    One of my characters is pursuing revenge on the man who killed his parents, only, he can't bring himself to kill anybody. He's tries, but he just can't make himself do it. But still he's searching for their murderer.

    Another one of mine is an adventurer and monster hunter (think the basic Skyrim like rpg character) and he kills when he has to. He loves to fight and to win, but if he has to kill somebody, he has to. Or that's what he tells himself. Close to the end of the book he pretty much relives all his memories at once, and sees just how many people he had killed, and just how needless it all was. He realises then, and it is revealed that he enjoys killing. He never let himself think it, but when he realises what he has done to countless people, it really stirs him up. He's disgusted and hates himself for it, and wants to stop killing and wants to atone for what he's done. He knows he deserves to be punished, that he deserves to die.
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    The lack of realistic impact of violence doesn't necessarily bother me. I read in any genre, including literary fiction that can deal with realistic portrayals of life in all of its aspects. If I really want that, that's the kind of book I gravitate to. No reason you can't also do it in fantasy, but if a fantasy book takes a more fantastic approach, that's fine with me.
  5. thecoldembrace

    thecoldembrace Sage

    I have a strong opinion against the article. While brief it leaves you the impression that most characters in stories have no remorse for the actions that they have caused. On the contrary I can on my fingers or in my head remember how characters I've read about change as a result of killing someone or something else. It is true that mankind is the only species that kills to kill, but we are rarely cold hearted killers. Very, very few derive pleasure from the act of taking another life, whether it be man or beast.

    Also on the article it talks about the collective... as though people back home change due to the battles in a place they have not seen, or witnessed the battles taking place. While people may be concerned about the bloodletting, they are concerned about their own more than their foes.

    I do agree that war, and battle and death have been romanticized in our culture. Why? Because for many of us we will never experience the brutal reality... most of us never want to, thus we create a construct in our heads of the notion. Yes, sometimes those versions are... way off from reality, but most of us know that if we or our characters killed someone there would be a definite psychological impact.

    In my story, many of my characters are born in the fires of war and conflict. Each and every one of them has a feeling about what they had done.

    My main character, a magic user killed dozens of men across a river from him during a battle scene. While it didn't dawn on him at the moment of killing of what he was doing it was later that he realized the impact of what he had done. He first attributed it to being touched by a dark god, thus corrupted in some way. Dismissing that notion he found that if he hadn't done what he did, many more would have died, (for the common good scenario) and HIS people might have suffered more. He found it as a sense of duty to protect that gave him some semblance of peace with what he did, but he knew he hated the act, and drew no satisfaction out of dealing death.

    One of my second characters, a boy raised to be a warrior the impact was less. He was raised on duty to his people and his prince. Duty is a very, very strong motivator for killing those who would otherwise harm. Also he has the attitude of self preservation, when attacked by three men at once it became the fight or die, and after their deaths and his near death he drew grim satisfaction that he did the right thing.

    War is brutal. In war very few are spared. This has been a theme of human civilization for a very, very long time. Yet, in the end it is still kill or be killed, fight or flight, love, duty, and self preservation win out. Should characters change that preformed the deed? Yes, but should ALL change because of what happened in a battle? No. Humans love to be blissfully ignorant, and would rather not hear about the feelings involved.
    And even if it is not a WAR in the traditional sense, and just a battle, I have come to realize that humans often say or think something like this. "Does the wolf worry or mourn the sheep it just killed? No, it survives, that is all."
    Jabrosky likes this.
  6. Wormtongue

    Wormtongue Minstrel

    I do show some emotional impact from killing but in a fantasy world where life is short and danger is the natural condition the people aren't going to be affected as they are in our "civilized" society.

    I consider it like writing about war. Some people are more affected by the killing than others. But everyone is more affected by the deaths of friends and loved ones than by strangers.

    Those that are most affected by killing are less likely to be in a situation where they have to kill.

    My three MCs are a warrior from a "barbarian" clan, a former slave, and a mage. The first two have lived death and suffering. The mage has lived a somewhat sheltered life but she is also shaped by the death of her mother when she was a child and her subsequent time as a street urchin. She is very empathetic and if she does kill, even in self defense, it will be traumatic for her.
  7. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    My characters are commonly warriors or hunters by trade. I figure that once you get past the first kill, any trauma you experience would wear off with each successive kill. In the case of the hunters, they probably think they're no worse than carnivorous wildlife that kill to survive.

    There are also cultural factors to take into account. Maybe warrior cultures like the Vikings, Mongols, or Maasai didn't view killing with the same uneasiness modern Western society does? One can only project so much of our modern sensibilities into people from the past.
    KC Trae Becker and Guy like this.
  8. AnneL

    AnneL Closed Account

    I'm really glad you posted that link, Phil. I was going to as well. There was a guest post on SF Signal recently that covered some of the same topics, though not with the same level of emotional insight Cole did (perhaps it was one of the ones that triggered his post). I don't have a lot of brawls or single combat in my writing, but war often features as part of the plot, and my characters do take time to reflect on that. People who don't kill ask other characters what it's like, characters remember their experiences, characters think about the difference between killing hand-to-hand and signing an order for execution. I haven't done a character with severe PTSD yet, but that is in the plans for the next big project. One of the things that I like about writing fantasy literature is that I can write about these big topics -- war, the effects of violence, the intersections of violence with justice and power -- in a way that I can't in other genres.

    Last edited: Mar 15, 2014
  9. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    I see it as a matter of how human you see your foes.

    On the one hand, I once wrote a relatively thoughtful fellow who was drafted into the military despite having no personal grievance against his foes. He killed an armed teenager to keep her from killing his commanding officer, losing one of his eyes in the process, and he got a medal for it. He doesn't exactly regret it--he did act to save the officer, after all--but he doesn't consider himself a hero, and the memory weighs him down to some degree.

    On the other hand, I once wrote a mercenary who got into the business with the intention of "slaying monsters." He felt no shame or guilt when killing orc noncombatants, because it wasn't like they were people. To him, it was simply an appropriate response to the atrocities orc soldiers had committed.

    This ties into what Jabrosky is saying--if you come from a society that refers to its members as "real people" and everyone else as "savages" or "monsters," things that would now be considered war crimes may come quite easy to you. I'd go a little broader, since groups like the KKK aren't completely extinct in modern America. (Anyone remember that Klansman who shot and killed a Japanese exchange student who knocked on his front door to ask for directions?) Even if your larger social context doesn't frame someone as a demon, if you're willing to look at people and see demons just because of the color of their skin or the accent they speak with, killing will probably weigh you down a lot less than if you're killing what you see as human beings.
  10. Guy

    Guy Inkling

    My two flagship characters are Aleena Kurrin and Baezha Ambrose. The gods designed Aleena to be a warrior, yet when she first killed (defending herself and others from slave traders) she was shattered, so much so that when another group of slave traders came for her not only did she not resist, she willingly surrendered to them, thinking she deserved it. While in their possession she saw what happened when she didn't kill people who needed it - they suffered the worst outrages imaginable. It made her realize her purpose in life. After that she could kill under certain circumstances (defense of herself or others) and not be bothered by it. Her hatred for slave traders, though, borders on psychotic. She'll kill them just for crossing her path, though she doesn't take the trouble to hunt them down.

    The gods designed Baezha to be a witch. Like Aleena, she can kill in defense of herself or others and not be bothered by it. She stalked the men who murdered her family and, being a witch, killed them in some fairly horrible ways. She didn't feel the slightest twinge of remorse. Indeed, she rather enjoyed it.

    So the upshot is my two main characters can kill and feel no remorse. Under certain conditions, they can enjoy it, but generally when they do it it's because it had to be done. They take care of business and move on. However, they can't just walk up to a stranger and waste him. They have the same emotional issues with that most other people do. When they kill, it has to be under specific conditions. According to Dave Grossman, an army psychiatrist who's written extensively on the subject of killing, about 2% of the male population fits this profile.
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2014
  11. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    In our urban fantasy environment, responses to killing really depend on the perspectives of the individual characters. We have many characters who are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old. They come from a time in human history when killing was a way of life - not war, though that was very common, but an omnipresent might-makes-right mentality that even today still holds sway in many parts of the world. For them killing equates not dying, so they don't suffer from guilt or shame or PTSD over taking a life.

    Our modern characters, in particular those who come from industrialized societies, are a different story. Many can't bring themselves to kill even in dire circumstances, and those who do suffer guilt, shame, PTSD and other symptoms of trauma. They have been enculturated by modern society that killing is deeply wrong and that they should suffer, even if they kill in self-defense. No amount of movies or video games can change that depth of programing, because of the dramatic difference between fantasy violence and experiencing the real thing.
  12. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    Killing someone is a big deal in my story worlds. Probably because I like the tension that brings in when someone does get chopped.
  13. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    I knew a lot of Vietnam war vets growing up, and I've had a number of younger relatives and others over in the Gulf War mess. Having to kill screws you up big time. Way it was put forth to me...

    Killing the first other human is hard and traumatic.

    Killing the second human is at least as hard, possibly worse.

    After that, somewhere around the fifth or sixth or seventh human killed, something breaks in the mind of the vast majority of folks. At that point, the lives of other humans simply doesn't mean anything. Age, race, sex, if need be, well, they die. I've run into a few vets like that. People you absolutely do not want to be around.

    I use this as a sort of guide in my stories. Many of my tales take place during or immediately after a brutal war spanning decades. Others involve characters who went the mercenary route or fought in smaller conflicts. The ones at the forefront of the fighting develop major psychosis.
  14. Wormtongue

    Wormtongue Minstrel

    That is a somewhat skewed view of the military and vets. I am a Marine Desert Storm vet, and have known countless other active duty and vets. It affects different people in different ways. Blanket generalizations are not accurate or useful.

    It is tempting to believe that it's worse than it is. Vets that come home and carry on with their lives don't get much notice. They don't talk a lot about it, if at all. I know those guys. I am that guy.

    Those that come back screwed up or talk a lot get the attention (understandably). Those that talk a lot tend to make things as dramatic as possible. I know those guys too.

    Please don't misinterpret that as me saying that the screwed up ones are unimportant. I want them to get all the help they need.
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  15. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    According to some recent studies on American soldiers, about 25% had some manner of mental disorder (defined pretty broadly--this even included ADHD.) The catch is that almost half of those were diagnosed before they enlisted. The biggest difference between soldiers and civilians turned out to be a much higher frequency of anger disorders--again, most commonly present before they signed up.
  16. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I'm a Marine veteran as well. I agree with Wormtongue that how it's handled is subjective from person to person.

    A story about someone who saw too much combat.....

    My father, whom many of you know passed accidentally a bit over a year ago, was an infantry platoon commander in Vietnam. In my entire life, he spoke to me about his experiences in war maybe three or four times. That's over 40+ years folks, and immediate family.

    He saw and ordered a lot of death. Most of the information I learned, he told to me during the last year of his life. Three particular stories stood out. I'll share two.

    The first described a long road his company was traveling. They were mechanized infantry so they were escorting trucks and tracked vehicles. Infantrymen were positioned on each side of the vehicles as well as gunners inside or on top. An enemy mortar attack ensued, with mortar shells landing on the other side of the tracked vehicle my father was guarding. When he got around to that side, half his platoon had been killed. A platoon is approximately 50 to 60 men. After the fight, he had to write letters to the families of each of those men. One was especially difficult. The letter was written to the family of a young man, Corporal Gonzalez. They'd be expecting him to return to the states about the time that letter would arrive. He only had a few days left in country when he died.

    The second story involved my father's platoon discovering the construction of a North Vietnamese encampment in the jungle. He ordered air and artillery strikes killing over 400 people.

    He told me that story not long ago. He said, at the time, he was proud of his troops. He received a commendation. Years later though, he felt an enormous amount if guilt for ending the lives of so many people, and so quickly. He knew it was duty & that they were enemy combatants, but in his later years he wondered if actions like these were unforgivable.

    Now, the only reason I think I heard any of these stories was because he started therapy through the Veteran's Administration. Part of that therapy was journaling these experiences. The writing of those horrors brought a lot of repressed memories to the surface in frightening detail. He was diagnosed with PTSD which was untreated for 44 years.

    I have that journal now. Someday it will be a story.

    My point in telling these stories is to illustrate a point. I never thought of my father as a damaged person. He was a good man who cared for his family & community. My mother though told me many times the man she married was not the same man that returned. It changed him as anyone might expect traumatic experiences to alter someone's psyche. Yet, as a child & for most of my adult life, I never knew.

    I believe though the effects of killing will manifest differently in people. We are complex creatures. They way we respond to trauma is no less complex and we should expect a varied result. Some will repress and carry on. Some may lash out or be suicidal. Then there's everything in between.

    The one thing I am certain of is the difference between talkers and the genuine article. The real deal rarely talks about the tragedies they experienced, they can't. When someone talks about them all the time, they're telling you someone else's stories or making them up.
    A. E. Lowan likes this.
  17. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    I certainly think he is coming from the perspective of a military fantasy author (and presumably reader), which is quite a different genre from the urban and high fantasy most of the people here write. Particularly the number of people ordering deaths and hearing of death second-hand back home; I know I feel very heavy-hearted when I think of the death toll of Iraq and Afghanistan citizens during our recent wars, but I can get solid numbers and stories from the family. A medieval peasant? Less so. And we have a lot more 'higher ups' and a lot more weapons that can kill from a distance than we did in a swords and shields era.

    That said, murder is murder regardless of time or place, and fantasy can handle it quite poorly. Particularly when it's the sort of story aiming for that dark and 'realistic' atmosphere. This person expresses a few of my thoughts on ASOIAF, for example.

    For unrelated reasons, I rarely write about people killing other people. Just not what I like to write about. When I do, it is usually only at the climax of the novel, and often the final chapter makes it clear that the person has changed dramatically because of their actions (though they are not necessarily remorseful). Or they are also dead - I have a bit of a thing for the Arthur-Mordred style of climax, or a 'lover of the villain who poisons them both' kind of ending. Either way, doesn't end well for the protagonist.
  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I think how killing is handled in a story is dependant on the type of story being told.

    I mean we have stories of the James Bond variety, where Bond mows down hundreds of henchmen with a handgun and only six bullets and whistles a happy tune while doing it. The henchmen, orcs, dark elves, etc., deserved it because they were very very bad. The audience doesn't want to see an ending where Bond has to go to a shrink because after that experience he's all messed up. It's a real downer and not what that type of story is about.

    On the other side of that we have a story like The Tell-Tale Heart where one death drives a man to insanity.

    And some where in between we have something like Kill Bill, where some deaths have weight and others aren't given a second thought.

    As mentioned above killing in real life is serious business that can scar the psyche, but stories aren't real life, they just pretend to be. The weight of real life doesn't always make for a good story or fit the story being told. Sometimes we want that realism and there are plenty of stories that deal with that. But most other times, people just want to be entertained. They want to go along for an adventure with fun characters, and at the end, they want to close the book wearing a smile, then turn back to the beginning and do it all over again. They don't want to get to the end and think, "I'm glad that's over now. I never want to experience that horror again."
  19. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    I've known some vets that talked about their experiences - usually support types - and some that didn't, or made just the occasional bare mention.

    One of the nastier Vietnam stories - probably second hand - had a pair of soldiers walking along a road in the rain. Long slog to base. Local comes by on a scooter, circles them, laughs. One of the soldiers raised his gun, pulls trigger. Local falls dead to the ground, grunts ride bike to base.

    Buddy of mine, vet, spent time in central America during the 'dirty wars' back in the 80's. After he gets out, he starts hanging out at a bar frequented by Vietnam era vets. He notices a couple of real quiet types who show up once a week, but don't interact with the others much. After a time, he decides to introduce himself, goes and sits at their table. They're not friendly, exactly, but not hostile either. Eventually he gets up and walks out of the bar to find a cop waiting for him. Cop tells him to avoid those two - they're 'stone killers', 'dirty work' types back in the day. Cop said they'd busted up a couple others like him pretty good in the past.

    I was at a pawn shop a couple years ago when one of the local Vietnam era vets I saw out and about now and again wandered in. Not normally a talker, but he was ticked off at a minor scam making the rounds. Said flat out he'd kill the people responsible if he caught up with them before the cops. Pawnshop owner tells him that's a bit extreme. Vet goes into a two sentence diatribe about how 'human life was worthless' and that he'd learned that in the war.

    About a year ago, there was a new guy at work; younger, very good physical condition, but not really cut out for the profession (quite frankly, its boring, mostly older people). But his reactions seemed a little excessive and off balance even so, enough to the point where the rest of us were starting to wonder what meds he was on and if he was taking them all. After about six months, he finally lets out that he's not merely a gulf war vet (Iraq and Afghanistan both), but a former member of a sort of backup special forces team, one that ended up in the middle of some very bad situations. He didn't talk about killing, but that kind of unit, those situations, the places he named....yeah. Apparently he left the unit because he wasn't gung-ho enough.

    And I've had a fair number of younger relatives of sorts who cycled through Iraq and Afghanistan, usually in a support capacity. One was with some sort of com unit, another was a guard at a prison, a couple others just sort of bounced around. None of them were surprised at the soldiers who went nuts and started killing the locals, or the 'hunting parties'.
    A. E. Lowan and Sheilawisz like this.
  20. SM-Dreamer

    SM-Dreamer Troubadour

    I'm kind of mixed on this. I see the point, that there are some that don't show the emotional ramifications of killing; but at the same time, culture, nurture, and personality will play a part in how much the act of killing will effect a person.

    In my story, one of my characters was trained to kill in an arena; it's all she knows. Killing is what she does, and in some ways she's cold to the act. The story itself is about her regaining her 'humanity' (I need a better word for that; she's not human, lol). Other characters in the story, have a variety of reactions to the act as well, some seeing it as a necessary evil, others abhorring the act.
    Ophiucha likes this.

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