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)

Thinking HARDER about characters

After writing last night’s post, I felt pretty good about the place I thought I’d gotten to. However, when I woke up and checked my Facebook, I noticed a nice little bit of feedback on my post. It pointed out that my conclusion about what change my character will undergo, is not a change. It’s an accomplishment. The offending bit from last night’s post reads:

It’s just a matter of understanding what the change ought to be. The main character starts out the book avoiding his innate magical skill. By the end, he has managed to learn how to harness some of the most powerful aspects of this magic. It’s pretty straight forward.

As an aspiring writer who did not spend a lot of time taking literature classes in college, I can’t tell you how hard it is to differentiate between “The change, growth, development for the character comes with the mastering of some internal turmoil, deep rooted assumptions, or personal landscape*” and some sort of personal achievement. These are very related things. Personal accomplishment, I think, is part and parcel of the broader character change.

So, the real question to answer is: How do the character’s motivations change over time? Then on to the question, How does this effect his personality? An accomplishment, on it’s face, isn’t likely to affect a change in the character’s motivation or personality. Although, it certainly could. To go back to Dune as an example, Paul Atreides becomes the kwisats haderach. There is accomplishment here, but the more important thing to note is that Paul becomes a different character. He reacts to things differently, thinks about things differently and sees them differently.

Another example, this one from the world of YouTube, (and if you’re a big enough nerd you should totally go and check this out), is a comedy web-series, now concluded, called the Guild. At the beginning of the series the main character is a total wreck. Uncertain, addicted to gaming, and her life is falling apart. By the end of the series, she has gotten control of all of this. She is sure of herself, has a steady job, and turns off the game (drops the addiction). From the perspective of a writer who is still developing skills, it could be easy to mistake this real change for accomplishment, thus applying the approach incorrectly to my own character development.

With all that rambling out of the way, what do I do now? As it turns out, I think I can still use the magic angle as the underlying impetus for the change. I’m not totally sure where the change will land him. I think I do actually need to finish drafting the work first before any decisions can be made. It’s going to be something more along the lines of coming to understand and accepting his new found role in the world and going on to embrace what it means. It’s going to take a lot of work and revision to get there and I will very likely be changing my mind on some of this once I get moving on it.

* This is a quote from the feedback I got.

Thinking about characters

A week or two ago, I decided to focus on finishing the first complete draft of the book* instead of going back and strengthening the main character. I’m trying like hell to stick to that approach, however, I’m still trying to work out the main character as I do. As he’s present in these chapters, it’s pretty much unavoidable anyhow. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to put that character though different scenarios and see what works and what doesn’t. After all, I do have an idea about how I want to revise him, even if it isn’t the current focus of my energy.

With that in mind, I’m asking myself “How does one write a compelling character?” My book does have a few fairly well done characters, so I’m pretty sure my problem isn’t that I’m terrible at writing good characters. On the whole, I think I’m doing pretty well on that score. It’s more a question of why one character is not done well, but another is.

One thing about the main character I’m struggling with is how he changes through the book. How should he grow? What is the change he undergoes? As a writer who is still really trying to master the craft, this is a pretty daunting pair of questions. Lacking the skill and experience to tackle these, I simply omitted certain personality details and worked to bring those out in later chapters. It’s not that I realized this is what was happening, if I had, I wouldn’t have done it that way. It’s only upon reflection that I’m able to see I was attempting to use omission of personality as a proxy for real change. Now, it’s not that my problem isn’t fixable, it’s just a matter of understanding what the change ought to be. The main character starts out the book avoiding his innate magical skill. By the end, he has managed to learn how to harness some of the most powerful aspects of this magic. There’s the change. I can make it big, and it’s pretty straight forward.

Another problem I had with the main character is that I started out the concept with two characters, friends and war-buddies. One of them I imagined as a free-wheeling, drinking and womanizing ruffian. The other, was more of a buttoned-up noble-born stiff. Early on in the project, I made a major change to the back-story. I gave the noble-born the ruffian’s back story and made it the beginning of the book. This was actually a break-through change for the story as a whole. It gave the thing a starting point and some conflict to ignite the larger fight. However, I made a mistake, which was that when I dropped that back-story on to the noble-born, the personality traits associated with the original character had to go with. Since I chose not to do that, I ended up with a mis-matched and incomplete personality coming through on the page.

To take this discussion further, I hit the books to see what might be learned there. I’m not talking about books on writing or writing characters, I’m talking about other fiction I’ve read and what struck me as being a particularly good example of characterization. There are a number of good examples, but my first thought was Dune. It was a book where I was blown away at how strong virtually every character was, from the very moment they walked into the scene. A good case example is Dr. Yueh. Over the course of six pages, Frank Herbert manages to introduce and draw Yueh as a tormented and unwilling participant in the Baron’s plans to utterly destroy the Atreides. What’s super interesting about this approach is that Herbert basically tells the reader what’s coming. Yueh is cursing himself for what’s coming, without directly or explicitly saying what that is. The Doctor acts and thinks in terms of the context he’s in without holding back. Nothing is muted to protect that bit of information from the reader until the writer is ready to spring it on them. Now, this is the important point. Because Herbert is not trying to hide what Yueh is up to from the reader, it allows him to more completely draw the character, highlight his anguish at being thrust into this situation.

The takeaway in this? When it comes to characters, don’t hold back.

For my situation, I think the solution is to make the main character’s evolution much more targeted, focused on the magic. He is not an uncertain person, and should not read that way. I know the context and history and so it shouldn’t be a horribly difficult task to write the character using that context as a framework. Just like the Dr. Yueh example, this will give a much more natural feel to those situations where the character reacts in a particular way, which is explained by his back story, but isn’t quite known by the reader.

* I have to call it a book now because it’s so close to being a full draft, I couldn’t rightly call it a story. Besides, I’m planning at least two more after, and in my mind, that’s the ‘story’.