Thinking about the act of killing


Before I start this blog, I want you to know it may be disturbing, and might even be slightly offensive. So, if you’re not familiar with hunting or the farming life, you might skip this one.

I had to kill a duck last week. Perhaps you might be asking why? Well, there is a point when enough of an animal’s insides are on the outside that death is inevitable, and though not incapacitated, or in a state of irreparable pain, the end is in sight -and will likely be a drawn-out and painful ordeal. Furthermore, I’m a pragmatic person. We had originally gotten the duck to eat, and even though we had changed our mind, once it became apparent the duck was facing a deadly affliction, we concluded the best thing to do was end the situation soon, and salvage some of the meat.

Have you ever had to kill anything? Even for something you intend to eat, unless you do it professionally, it’s not an easy thing to do. I’m not even talking about killing a human, I’ve never been in such a position and I hope that this is never a topic I even become remotely knowledgeable about. There is no nice way of ending an animal’s life. With skill and a sure hand, you can do it reasonably easily -make it as quick and complete as possible, but the act is necessarily violent and final. I find that when I’m hunting, the identification and trigger pulling is compressed into just a handful of seconds. It turns to instinct. There is no thinking about it, just doing. If your shot placement is good, and hopefully it is, the animal succumbs quickly. A dead rabbit or fish or grouse is easy to deal with. At that point you’re handling something more recognizable as food than as an animal.

The story gets more complicated when it’s an animal you know. Say a duck or chicken you have raised from a chick for example. You’re not simply catching sight of an animal and shooting it. No, you are picking it up, and deliberately ending it’s life with your own two hands. It is a very stressful thing to do. For me, it’s stressful because I want the end to be quick and humane. Butchering our chickens and ducks is something I do not look forward to. The act of killing them makes me feel vaguely ill. Sure it passes in the span of a few moments before it’s time to get down to business, but I still feel it. Every time. It’s not at all like the movies where you see single gunshot ending it before the person/animal hits the ground. No, it’s not like that. If you can sever just the right part of the spine, of any creature, everything seizes and it’s over. That said, most of us don’t have have such a sure hand. Most other methods result in thrashing and a struggle for survival, even though it’s over.

Now, with that in mind. Imagine being put into a position of killing another human being. I’m going to assume you’re not a psychopath who enjoys such things. Let’s, instead, assume you are in a fight, any kind of fight, where it is your life or an enemy’s life at stake. How would you feel? More precisely, how should your character feel? Unless s/he is a psychopath, s/he is going to be feeling the flight/fight response rather keenly, likely in the form of an intense adrenaline rush. Once the threat has been lifted, they are going to feel slightly shaky and vaguely ill. This is partly the after-effects of the adrenaline, but it’s still a physical response. In a long drawn-out battle, your character probably won’t have time to stop and think about each kill. It’s the sort of thing that happens after the fact -once the air has cleared and the danger has lifted.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that very often you read about epic battles and mighty blows dealt to ugly foes, and yet you rarely see what it actually feels like when you kill something. Even for something as inconsequential as a chicken, it can be a very singular adrenaline rush. Your protagonist might be a farmer and butchering chickens isn’t much of a problem, but being so intimate with the death of another human being at close range is going to have an effect on that person. Considering that your protagonist, if following a typical fantasy arc, is probably not a well seasoned warrior, this is going to have a dramatic effect on him/her – even when they didn’t cause the death directly, and even when the death was necessary for their own survival.

So. When you have your character, perhaps a fighting noob, off a bad-guy, think about that adrenaline rush, the shaking of hands, the vaguely ill feeling. It’s not much to add to a story, but it’s authentic, and adds something to your character.


photo credit: crime-scene-murder-weapon.jpg via photopin (license)


6 thoughts on “Thinking about the act of killing

  1. Dang right! Thanks for this. I’ve always been disturbed by those stories in which the protagonist seems to have no real reaction to a dead someone or something that they just killed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Gabriel to Earth and commented:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One reason, I think, that many authors have “villains” die by falling from a height is just exactly what you describe. These characters are “only villains,” and the writer doesn’t want readers empathizing with them. Because, you know, the reader might then start to question other pieces of story logic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I never considered that, but that is really a very commonly used trick, and I can clearly see why. Not always practical, but a good approach nonetheless. I feel like this ties into a discussion that Kristen Lamb had on her blog over villains the other day. Thank you for this comment – you have me thinking now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a case of conflicting reader expectations that plays out most obviously in Disney animation. Readers/viewers want “villains” to pay for their misdeeds. They want the “villain” to die. (Sometimes, in my novels, the “villain” lives and even thrives. I always get gripes about that!)

        Yet they also know that murder isn’t heroic, so they don’t want the “hero” to actually bloody his or her sword. Hence the more indirect death by falling.

        Liked by 1 person

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