Fiction Philosophy: Death Part 2

>> Sunday, July 25, 2010

So I was discussing what was worse than killing someone on the last post, but it begs the question, if killing people is, on the whole, a bad thing, what circumstances make it acceptable? It's a question for almost any writer who's going to go beyond picture books or homey stories where no one gets hurt. Killing, the ways and means and whys, not the mention the whos, is one of the ways we separate the good guys from the bad guys, though not the only way. Some of the ways I mentioned in the last post are useful, too. But, frequently in adult fiction (and even some YA), killing is done by good and bad guys. As a writer, you should know the lines your characters will and won't cross.

So, what's acceptable, justifiable homicide?

Self-defense? It's hard to argue that one, but it's not particularly simple either. Self defense could be shoving your keys in a rapists eye socket or throwing a grenade at an attacking phalanx of soldiers. But, whereas the first is pretty clean-cut (depending on whether people presume that protecting one's virtue by force is acceptable - which I certainly do, even if they aren't planning to kill you afterward), the second is harder to define as "self-defense." Defense, surely, and undoubtedly one or more of the phalanx would kill you as an opposing soldier, but you don't know who will be attacking you personally, who will be attacking your fellows, who is rushing forward but just as scared and reactive as you are.

And there's always the question of how well you've gauged a threat. Many say (in law enforcement) that anyone who enters your bedroom while you're sleeping in it is a threat. Truly, most people who just steal prefer that you're not around. People who invade occupied homes at night are frequently rapists or killers. But is killing them when they enter your bedroom self-defense or paranoia? If you wait until they attack you, your shotgun might not save you. It's a pertinent question for a novelist, for a character. And note that the answer may not always be the same. If you have a world where people are routinely captured and sold for slaves, you might be less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt than if you lived in a world where murder is all but unheard of.

Defense of others. This seems pretty clear, too. Someone slides a knife to a child's neck, readers are unlikely to get upset if a sharpshooter gets the bastard in the eye. But it can get complicated, too. It's nice when people are clearly evil and a threat. What if they're drug pushers or child beaters, but not actively doing so at the moment? What if the person you have to kill is an innocent, an infected person who could contaminate a community? What if both sides are slimy? What would you do if your wife or husband or child were threatened? Would you kill someone else, even someone who wasn't involved? Would you develop weapons or diseases or poisons?

For their own or the greater good - Would you kill someone who begged for release? Would you sacrifice someone to feed a crowd (including yourself)? Would you sacrifice a soldier or a worker because saving them put others in danger? What if it was to obtain a key goal rather than protecting people per se?

Revenge/justice (noting that many who indulge in revenge see it as justice) - at what point is it acceptable. Is it ever acceptable? If he's beaten you for years and he passes out after a night long drinking binge, is it okay to kill him? If you find out he raped your daughter, can you kill him? If someone failed to protect you or someone you loved when they should have, can you kill them?

Money and power. Frequently, at least for me, this is a dividing line. It's hard to be a protagonist if you'll kill for nothing more important than money or power. But it's been done, and done well.

Often who we kill is as important as why. What would it take to kill a kid? If you can think of something, you're more original than I. A pregnant woman? And old man in a wheelchair? No matter how planned, is killing a drug dealer who hung around schools somehow more virtuous than taking out a teacher?

Murder is often seen as a black and white thing, but, in my opinion, it's often not. In fact, for novels involving violence, walking that line between what is morally right and morally wrong may be as tenuous as figuring out what kind of killing is acceptable and what isn't.


  • The Mother

    I think this is where fiction can be used to make a moral point. The circumstances that your hero/ine decides are ethically acceptable make a statement to your readers.

  • Shakespeare

    I have trouble with killing when the protagonist doesn't seem to care. If violence comes easy, then killing is harder for me to accept. In real life, many cops I know have a tremendous difficulty dealing with a death they have caused, even when it is entirely justified. Soldiers often deal with the same trauma. If they are trained in these situations, yet have problems, that would suggest that ordinary people caught in a similar situation would be even less emotionally prepared for it, and would be affected more deeply.

    It isn't so much what the characters do as how they view themselves because of it. I need them to be human, not robotic, and I personally need them to see violence as a necessary evil, a difficult task, not as part of their thought system.

    Fascinating post. Really got me thinking.

  • Stephanie Barr

    The Mother, I agree entirely. Perhaps it's one reason I don't eschew violence in my writing.

    Shakespeare, I think that's a salient point and one I haven't addressed much in my writing since much of my fiction to date have involved soldiers or other rather ruthless individuals. It does take something away though, adds a hardness, a coldness, to even the most otherwise likeable character to be comfortable and unaffected by killing others, to look forward to it.

    I didn't include that point when writing this, but it's a fair one to make.

  • Jeff King

    I think you covered all the bases.
    I agree with your premise.

  • Anonymous

    I have no problem with a protagonist committing outright homicide, so long as the act is informed by past behavior. Out of character is out of character; it doesn't always have to come down to morality.

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