Fiction Philosophy: Death Part 1

>> Wednesday, July 21, 2010

As I have the majority of the JD Robb "In Death" books on my e-reader (and I'm a fan), I've been reading through the series recently, even though it's not a genre I read frequently. I love the characters, particularly all the characters, even Eve, though Eve least of all. I could explain why, but that's not what I'm here to talk about.

What I wanted to talk about was violence and morality. When reading Divided in Death (potential spoilers if you were wanting to read it but haven't), there's a conflict between Eve (the main protagonist, homicide detective) and Roarke (one of the most appealing - if improbable - characters ever written), where Roarke discovers that federal agents were listening in when Eve's father raped and beat her repeatedly, even listened in when she killed him in self defense (at the age of eight) and did nothing to help. Roarke would like to slow roast said agents over a slow fire. Eve is absolutely aghast that, though she knows he's killed in cold blood before, he would murder people again.

Now, there's a whole blog post about what is and isn't justifiable with regards to killing someone. And Eve definitely knows this because she's got nearly half a dozen under her own belt and they generally don't bother her much. I'll probably get to where I discuss that, too, but that's not what I want to talk about either.

What I want to discuss (because it's what I was thinking about as I was reading this particular installment) was if there really were "fates worse than death." Now don't get me wrong, I'm against murder (in general). I think death is heart-rending when someone with a full life ahead of them is cut short or when the death is needlessly painful, humiliating or lingering.

But death itself doesn't scare me much. I also don't feel too terribly bad if people who do horrible things, who promote or ignore horrors done by others drop dead. I've never pretended to be anything other than pro-capital punishment not because I'm convinced that it will stop the next fellow, but I know for a fact it will stop the first one. Can't escape from or get paroled from death.

I'm not a proponent for torture or painful deaths (though I can appreciate where those would be justice) mostly because that kind of thing can readily be taken too far. I'm satisfied that someone who has done something truly heinous won't be doing it again.

What does this have to do with fiction?

Well, because my attitude is part and parcel of my fiction. I write a great deal of fantasy/science fiction and I won't lie. It's violent. Many people are killed outright, yes, by my protagonists, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest, even though there are lines my characters won't cross. They tend to be pragmatic about death and, though part of the reason has to do with the environments I make for them, part of it is a direct reflection of my own pragmatism. In many ways, I have a very Eastern view of death.

But, for good guys to wander about fantasyland with a trail of corpses, I have to believe there are crimes that are more heinous than killing someone outright, or I'd have nothing but victims and bad guys. I do and it's reflected in my novels.

Rape, for instance. I've mentioned before that, while I can think of half a dozen perfectly legitimate reasons for killing someone (and a few that aren't as legitimate but frequently used), I can't think of a single excuse for rape. Nor, if given a choice, would I choose rape over death (bearing in mind that death doesn't scare me). I figure, if he'd kill me before, chances are he was going to kill me anyway - might as well save myself an unpleasant experience.

Causing pain for enjoyment or expedience or callousness, also, in my opinion, worse than killing someone outright. I'm not talking about sending your kid to bed without dinner, but there are many torments out there, physical and mental, where killing would be far more humane.

People who traffic in people also get the "worse than murderers" badge pinned. Slavers, like rapists, largely don't live to the end of the book and that's a conscious choice on my part.

And, admittedly, it makes a difference to me why someone kills another and how. You kill people by burning them at the stake or bottoms up impalement - no way to make you the good guy. You kill innocent people either because of "what" they are (rather than what they've done) or because you can, especially children, I'm going to think you're scum. Which just goes to show I'll have to talk about what I consider "justifiable" another time.

But, the reason I write that way is because I truly believe some fates are worse than death, that someone could kill another human being and be a good person but that are some things people couldn't do and retain their humanity. Do you write characters with the same viewpoint you have? Or does it change with the circumstances or the venue? What are your thoughts on violence and how are they reflected in what you write?


  • Project Savior

    When it's possible I try give my characters as different a viewpoint from me as possible. My rationale is that if I have to think and explore a character that thinks very differently than me I'm less likely to leave out important parts of their motivation as I take it for granted.
    The other reason is if someone hates a character I based on myself it would be tough not to get defensive.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I have to admit I'm a big part of most of my protagonists and it can be tough depending on why they don't like my characters. However, I'm pretty pragmatic about other aspects (such a this one) and generally understand if someone doesn't like it. I'm an acquired taste and, hey, people don't have to like me.

    What is actually much harder for me to deal with is when a character is based on someone I love and a reader attacks them and gets all judgemental, especially if it's over just one aspect of the character. It is very hard for me to be objective when that happens and that's when I'm the most defensive.

    I do get better and better with objectivity over time.

  • The Mother

    Of course there are fates worse than death.

    Like lingering in a half-conscious state for decades. Or being completely paralyzed with no means of communication or entertainment. Or being in a constant state of agony that even massive, consciousness-altering drugs cannot control.

    Do I sound like I believe in euthanasia? Because I do.The Christian ethic of "life wins out at all costs" is total bunk.

  • Stephanie Barr

    And there, The Mother, we are in agreement. I don't understand how we can put our pets to sleep so they don't suffer, but insist our elderly live out lives of pain and debilitation, even if they don't want to, even if they ask to be released or even if they can no longer tell us, yet we know they would never want to live like this.

    To be honest, I think spending 30 years on death row is a more horrible fate than a quick death. I can't figure out why anyone would fight a death sentence given the alternative. But, again, death doesn't frighten me.

    I've often wondered why it frightens so many.

  • Jeff King

    Do you write characters with the same viewpoint you have? ---Sometimes---

    Or does it change with the circumstances or the venue? ---Yes it has a factor in what happens---

    What are your thoughts on violence and how are they reflected in what you write? ---Violence is a huge part of reality, so it has become a huge part of my writing. There are so many was violence can be use to show more about the story and scene that anything else used in writing.---

    I love a good battle; it stirs all kinds of emotions.

    Off with his head!!!

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