Thinking about the act of killing

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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)

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The ruggedly handsome rogue hero.

I suppose the ruggedly handsome rogue hero, is technically more appropriately called the lovable rogue, but I like my description better. I could try to write a how-to here, but that’s pointless, because there’s a lot of that out there and everything I’ve seen I generally disagree with to a certain extent. I’m also not out here to pick a fight with other bloggers or advice givers, so picking apart someone else’s analysis isn’t worth the time. Instead, I thought I’d rather muse on three of my favorite lovable rogues. These would be Han Solo, Malcom (Mal) Reynolds from Firefly, and Uhtred of Bebbanburg from the Saxon Stories series*.

First question – Who would win in a fight if they were all pitted against each other at the same time? Uhtred is from the 800s, and only has a sword. I expect he would go down first. Both Mal and Han have firearms. Then Mal would go down because (Wait for it … ) Han shoots first.

Now that’s sorted out, who is the most roguish? Before I can tackle this question, I need to discount the killing of bad-guys. It’s an occupational hazard of the stories these characters appear in. Let’s start with Han. Turns’ out he’s actually a scoundrel. Yes, he comes back to save Luke at the end of movie 1, and he sticks it out through the series, even leading a dangerous expedition on Endor, but his back story is one of real crime, and his motives throughout the rest of the movies aren’t clear – I suppose it’s for the love of Leia. What about Uhtred? The most notable bit of roguishness involves the double-crossing and sacking of a Welsh village. Most of the rest of his exploits involve fighting with Danes, and as it’s part of a war between the Saxons and Danes so I’m not sure that counts as roguish behavior. His back-story has him turned out from a noble Saxon family to be brought up by Danes. Now for Mal. His day job involves running illegal cargo, BUT he’s got a strict set of rules about what that cargo is. He gives up jobs that directly hurt regular folk. His back story involves being on the wrong side of a war. I hardly count this as roguish. Once again Han comes out on top.

What about the strict set of rules this character lives by? In my opinion, Mal really has the best and most idealistic set of rules, generally centered on letting people live their lives. I can’t tell you what sort of rules Han lives by – he’s a scoundrel. Uhtred lives by the sword, and the oath. I’d put him second in the strong belief’s category.

Who’s the most ruggedly handsome? I don’t care.

I could go on, but I think that’s enough. What’s the point of this musing? To be honest, this is some rubber-ducking to help me work out a main character. I hadn’t initially imagined him as a lovable rogue, but that’s where it’s landed. This is one of the reasons I’m having trouble making the character really pop (because I’m fighting against this characterization). Now that I’ve accepted the reality of who this character needs to be in order to make the story work, I need to make sure that I do it right. There are a whole lot of ways to achieve this type of character, I just need to settle on one and go with it. I’m thinking of placing him just outside the not a lovable rogue sphere, but slightly more on the soldier quadrant.

 

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Do you have a lovable rogue? Where does s/he belong on this chart?


 

* By Bernard Cornwell. You need to read this.

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.