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Author Topic: Consequences of Taking Life  (Read 1722 times)

Offline The Gem Cutter

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Consequences of Taking Life
« on: March 30, 2018, 04:10:06 AM »
Caveat: I am referring to situations when violence is or seems justified or at least sanctioned by one's value system, as opposed to just plain old murder/cruelty.

Why do we never see characters wrestling with this? Inflicting death or even "just" great harm has a lasting impact - and I think a character who wrestles with that would be more compelling and sympathetic. Am I just not noticing it? If it really isn't out there, why not? Is it too alien and uncomfortable for most readers?

I've met people who literally do not care, and they're borderline sociopathic. I differentiate between those who suppress and manage the pain one experiences when anyone, even an enemy, is subjected to death or severe injury. It comes right along with the joy of getting someone who was trying to get you, which is more exhilarating than anything I can think of. The joy of still being alive has absolutely no moral compass, in my experience. You may have guilt or remorse on the side, maybe a lot, but they're not connected. The one passes, the other does not.

Just curious what normal people think about this.
« Last Edit: March 30, 2018, 07:45:49 PM by The Gem Cutter »
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Offline Skip

Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #1 on: March 30, 2018, 05:54:48 AM »
I'm not sure fantasy would be the right genre for that. I would go for something more mainstream, literary, to explore the realistic aspects of having slain someone. It's very much a worthy topic, one that has had many great works.
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Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #2 on: March 30, 2018, 08:11:52 AM »
Interesting question.

In Anthony Ryan's Draconis Memoria series you have a charater who's a spy/undercover agent. She's killed lots of people in the line of duty, and as the books progress she gets less and less comfortable with it, to the point where her bosses end up criticising her for "letting emotions get in the way".

And Skip, I understand what you're saying, but I'm not sure that this is a theme that can only be addressed in "mainstream". If we fantasy readers are always looking for "more realistic" characters, this would definitely fit there.
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Offline eclipse

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Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #3 on: March 30, 2018, 08:19:12 AM »
I would be happy to read this theme in fantasy, ( not all the time) I’m sure it’s be done somewhere maybe in the military Fantasy sub genre

I think all themes you can think of can be done in Fantasy you just have to write them
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Offline Quill

Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #4 on: March 30, 2018, 12:26:45 PM »
I think a possible reason why this is not often explored is simply because few fantasy writers ever experience this (killing someone and experiencing the guilt), nor is it something that we day-dream much about (because obviously fantasy writers have to imagine a lot of stuff they'd never experience in life).

So for those writers who are inspired by day-dreaming types of fantasy (imagining being a hero, slaying dragons, saving the world etc.) this isn't part of the experience. And for those writers who go the other way into grimdark territory, the norm seems to be sociopathic characters that enjoy killing or at least feels no remorse.

It is nonetheless worthwhile to consider. In one of my own WIP's, I'm trying to portray PTSD for a character that used to be carefree and jovial, but has to defend a city under heavy siege for a month, day in and day out. It's not exactly the same, he's not wracked by guilt over killing so much as just having suffered the trauma of experiencing war, but it's still been an enormous challenge for me. In part because I haven't experienced anything like PTSD and can only go by the accounts of others, in part because I write in a medieval world that doesn't know psychology or the concept of PTSD.
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Offline Eli_Freysson

Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #5 on: March 30, 2018, 02:00:28 PM »
I have sometimes considered whether people in the Olden Days experienced this as strongly as they do now. Yes, the basic structure of our brains has been the same for a long, long time now, but if one looks at the real-life middle ages then about half of children born reached adulthood. Disease ran rampant. Executions were public affairs, including really gruesome ones. War and just violence in general was much more frequent. I have to wonder if people weren't just in general more hardened.

In retrospect I feel I could have explored this more, but Katja, the protagonist of my Silent War series, was literally born to fight. Her people are born with special attributes; physical but also mental. After killing a human being for the first time she briefly reflects on it, finds herself completely at ease, and then never thinks about it again. At the same time she isn't a sociopath, and doesn't want friends or anyone she considers innocent to come to harm. This does cause her some unease, as she is aware that this kind of thinking isn't normal and puts her somewhat at odds with ordinary humanity.

In one book she also witnesses a horrific mass-slaughter of villagers. And while she's shocked at the time a few days later she's fine... which disturbs her when it occurs to her to reflect on it. But then perfect recovery from any non-fatal wound is one of her people's gifts.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #6 on: March 30, 2018, 02:21:06 PM »
The recent Wonder Woman movie had a wonderful, poignant (for me) moment when the Scotsman wakes from a nightmare and reacts the way many people do - embarrassed, startled, and angry. It's just a brief moment, but it speaks volumes to his undescribed past and to who that character is inside. Micro-moments of drama like that, without emphasis or exaggeration, are the kind of bits that appeal to me.
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Offline Peat

Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #7 on: March 30, 2018, 03:00:19 PM »
I can think of quite a few fantasy books that address it, but only in passing, as a grace note. In the Belgariad, Garion feels remorse halfway through burning a man to death and Durnik needs comforting after killing for the first time. In the Serpentwar, Erik has a conversation about what killing feels like after wanting to torture a man. In Daggerspell, Jill throws up after killing a man. Etc.etc.

It's rarely a theme. In the Empire trilogy, Mara attempts to spare the lives of her enemies due to the losses she herself suffers, and feels very guilty after manipulating her husband into having to kill himself.

The closest to a sustained authorial theme in fantasy on it that I can think of is David Gemmell - his characters freeze, get shock, get traumatised, get guilty, etc.etc.

And here we get to my version of the why... Gemmell grew up in a rough neighbourhood, he worked doors, he investigated violent crimes as a journalist. I don't think he ever took a life or saw one taken, but he got violence and he saw the aftermath.

How many authors is this true of? Oh, a lot of them do martial arts of some type. I've done some, and I've had knives drawn on me, and I'm stating the obvious to say it really isn't the same.

The other author I can think of that often dwells on it is Jordan - Vietnam vet.

I'd like to see more authors tackle it. Just because you don't experience it yourself doesn't mean you can't study it, think about it. I've no objection to light-hearted heroism, but I'd like to see the other side of the coin.

Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #8 on: March 30, 2018, 07:49:07 PM »
I realize now that many of the books in the genre I read a long time ago, before I went to war, and back then the moments just didn't register or resonate. Perhaps some re-reading is in order. I suppose it's like anything else - when I was a kid watching movies I didn't pick up on the chauvinism, racism, etc., but when I see them now, I am stunned.
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Offline Yora

Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #9 on: March 30, 2018, 08:35:53 PM »
I think the reason why this is the case is that the mainstream type of fantasy is completely integrated with the action entertainment of the 20th and now 21st century, but also because of it's roots in ancient myths and epics.
Most of these ancient tales exist now in a form that we would consider to be basically plot summaries that leave out most of the details we would expect in fantasy novels today. They are stories of heroes slaying monsters and conquering their enemies. To the ancient people telling and hearing these stories there would be a lot of social context that puts all these plot points into perspective, but which now are completely lost to most of us and only vaguely assumed by expert scholars. At which points in those stories those original audiences would have seen moments of heroism, villainy, failure, and redemption, and how they would have judged the different deeds of the characters is something that eludes us. All we get now are acounts of the actions and the assumed implication that these were awesome dudes.
The contemporary action entertainment I very strongly suspect arose from the American founding myth. "Manifest Destiny", "Out West", on "The Frontier". Where Western European white men could get rich and powerful with nothing but determination and the will to mistreat natives, blacks, Asians, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Irish, Catholics, and  pretty much anyone else. "Manifest Destiny" is to take by force what you want and crush anyone who gets in your way. Because  God told us, and everything that comes from God must be good, right? Of courese, that's exactly the same mentality of European feudal lords, Asian warlods, and so on. But when American entertainment swept across the world in the 40s, this particular image of fictional heroism became the global mainstream standard. Killing is not a bad thing! Killing is good! A man's value comes from his ability to kill! (And to protect his loved ones.) Most fiction is not that blatantly brain dead, but when we imagine a heroic protagonist, this is stil the default image we start with. If we create a hero that diverges from that, I bet 90% of the time it's because we made the deliberate decision to ditch this model and search for some other way in which a protagonist could be heroic. "Search" being the key word here. It takes effort to make a different type of protagonist.

And Skip, I understand what you're saying, but I'm not sure that this is a theme that can only be addressed in "mainstream". If we fantasy readers are always looking for "more realistic" characters, this would definitely fit there.
It's one of the main things that got me interested in writing fantasy. Partly because I started to notice how crazy the situation is that I described above. Violence has become a very interesting and compelling topic for me, even though you could probably call me a "practical pacifist".  In principle I support the use of nonlethal and lethal violence in situations where it is really necessary, but in practice I consider it necessary only in the most extremely rare cases that most of us will almost certainly never encounter. Yet at the same time, I really enjoy violent entertainment and have absolutely no problem with it. This apparent contradiction is why I find violence and violence in fiction such compelling subjects. And I always love it when this does come up in a work. The missmatch between loving the idea of violence and being revolted by actual violence. When characters say "this isn't at all like I thought it would be."

I have sometimes considered whether people in the Olden Days experienced this as strongly as they do now. Yes, the basic structure of our brains has been the same for a long, long time now, but if one looks at the real-life middle ages then about half of children born reached adulthood. Disease ran rampant. Executions were public affairs, including really gruesome ones. War and just violence in general was much more frequent. I have to wonder if people weren't just in general more hardened.
The human brain is a very strange thing that has proven itself to be capable of literally anything, if we assume that it's the socially accepted and mandated thing to do in a particular situation. I'm from Germany where this has been a huge intelectual issue in our recent history. Normal German citizen were drafted into the Army and went on to commit every attrocity imaginable. And then normal Soviet citizens gave back just as savagely. Not just to each other, but to everyone who ended up in their path. Lot's of things that would be considered to be the most abhorent crimes back home simply seem normal when on campaign in a war. When you're part of a campaign of "burning, raping, and pilaging", then that's exactly what everyone expects you to do. Then you go back home on leave and become a normal decent person for a month, and then it's back to the front to continue. Nobody want to be the weirdo who is squemish or objects when everyone around knows what the proper socially accepted behavior is in the situation you're in. And apparently, once the whole thing is over, most people can sleep just fine with that.
And let's not forget "killing" is generally considered to be the worst thing possible in modern western culture (as from messed up ideas that don't seem to exist outside of torture porn movies). Yet killing or assisting in killing is the literal job description of everyone who works in the military. But there's only a fringe minority that considers everyone in the military to be guilty of accessory to murder. Because in war, this is different. One can of course discuss endless how the use of lethal force against enemy combatants is a completely different level of necessary than torturing unarmed civilians. But it gets very blurry between these two very quickly. What about the civilian truck driver delivering food to a weapons factory? That's clearly a completely different level of necessary for the protection of innocents than shoting at the soldier who is assaulting a village. But even that won't get anyone charged with war crimes or murder.
The human brain is not a rational thing. We make the facts match our preferences and when it's no longer possible to solve the conflict between our morals and our actions we simply ignore it. Only when that doesn't work anymore either do we start to openly express our distress. (How many people just keep it to themselves is hard to say. But when it is socially demanded that you do a thing, then it's socially unacceptable to express your distress about it.)
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Offline eclipse

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Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #10 on: March 30, 2018, 08:41:12 PM »
@The Gem Cutter  I think you should give Glen Cook Black Company series a go, can’t remember if it deals with this theme but it’s about a military unit of men, I would like to see your views on it, me and @Lanko really enjoyed it but it’s not for everyone.

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Offline cupiscent

Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #11 on: March 31, 2018, 12:19:08 AM »
Harry Potter has an overall theme of the violence to the soul (as it were) caused by doing violence to others. Voldemort is made monstrous by his monstrosities to others; though it's not quite so available on the page, the Death Eaters are also stripped of some humanity by their use of Unforgiveables. I would've liked to see that more deeply explored, but it's possibly a thing more of interest to adults than to the intended readership of the books.

Then again, one of the places I most often see the hesitation before pulling the metaphorical trigger, because the character's done a lot of bad shit but they haven't actually killed anyone yet, is in YA fantasy.

I'm also given to understand that the second season of Jessica Jones is dealing in large part with Jessica's psychological fall-out from executing someone (who undeniably deserved it) in the first season. And she is, in her own words, an asshole.

Offline JMack

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Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #12 on: April 01, 2018, 12:16:57 PM »
I’m also interested in the question of whether revulsion to killing was less common in pre-industrial times (or choose your cut off between pre-modern and modern).

Wikipedia is no help this time. Which means I’d actually have to exert effort to find an answer.
Hmm. Read a fantasy book filled with macabre violence, or research PTSD and related topics in pre-modern societies... ?


Well, some additional effort can’t hurt.

http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/war-morality-violence-middle-ages/

https://newrepublic.com/article/77728/history-violence
« Last Edit: April 01, 2018, 12:23:50 PM by JMack »
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Offline xiagan

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Re: Consequences of Taking Life
« Reply #13 on: April 01, 2018, 02:13:57 PM »
And apparently, once the whole thing is over, most people can sleep just fine with that.
I agree with most of the rest you said, but not with this one. Usually people are able to suppress this for a time but someday it gets them. A lot of war veterans and war survivors are able to cope until they get old and then it all comes back and the memories that were blocked out/suppressed return with full force and make them relive it all again and again. No matter if they were inflicting or surviving violence.
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