Morally Dubious Heroics

Morally Dubious Heroics

I am not very good at writing likeable characters.

Okay, so this isn’t entirely true. I pride myself on having the ability to make my beta readers sympathise with* these characters, getting more and more invested into their stories. And then I kill them off. No, I’m joking. This is not about the characters I kill, ripping out Charley’s heart in the process. It is, actually, usually about the killers, or the survivors at least.

See, I’ve noticed it particularly with my last two NaNo novels, because while they have very little in common, I wrote them approximately one year apart, and am now looking at them both from a similar perspective. It happens in my other books to. In my Death and Fairies series, I found myself referring to one of the characters as “innocent”. A reader pointed out to me that she had watched her family members die, and I said: “Ah, but she didn’t kill them.”

awkward waheyWhen the only thing defining your most innocent character is the fact that they alone haven’t killed anybody, there’s something wrong with the series. I mean, it’s not always a failing; one of my favourite shows of the past year was Hannibal and pretty much everybody in that has killed at least one person. Often, how we view these murderous characters is very much a matter of perspective, and it’s about the writers skill in making them sympathetic enough that we forgive them for it.

But I’m beginning to notice a theme. I create these characters, usually fairly young, and give them a story. I become emotionally invested in them, and they are a hero or heroine to me, with traits I admire who make decisions that I would make. And then, towards the end of the book, they do one of three things:

  1. Commit genocide
  2. Commit fratricide
  3. Commit mass homicide

I mean, these things just happen. Don’t you hate it when you accidentally wipe out an entire civilisation and the narrator? It’s not without reasons, of course: I only kill characters if it’s necessary, or to take revenge on Charley for killing one of hers. Quite often, by eradicating their race they are saving the world, or by killing one of their siblings they are able to counteract a serious threat. (For the record, I think I’ve used this last plot point in three novels I’ve written so far, even if only one of them is good enough to be a serious contender for publication.)

And, okay, some of them are terrorists. Well, they’d probably call themselves freedom fighters, and in most cases that actually more accurate. I seem to have a problem with authority figures, because in my novels they are frequently what has to be taken down — although that might just be my love of revolution.

enjolras with a gun
Last year, I was even working on a novel where one of the main characters was a contract killer. She chose to go out and murder people for money, not because she was trapped and had no other choice, and this was one of the first things we knew about her, but I was still trying to make the reader sympathise with this character. Of course, she had her share of tragic backstory and hard decisions, but in the end, the fact remained that she was an assassin. And she had chosen to take that path.

I’m not really sure what this says about me. In most young adult novels that I’ve read, the murderers are generally the bad guys. Even if the heroes have to make hard decisions and occasionally sacrifice somebody, they usually managed to get by just by knocking the person out, and running away quickly before they wake up. This is true of so many novels that I am almost beginning to wonder if everybody is immortal. I mean, did anybody actually die in The Mortal Instruments series? At all? So often, we were led to believe that somebody was dead and they turned up a couple of chapters later, perhaps of a different species, but still technically alive.

I like killing characters. It raises the stakes, and convinces you that there is no going back from this. If everybody is immortal, then there’s nothing to fight for.

But sometimes I wonder if having my formerly sympathetic characters do the deed is a mistake. After all, I do want people to like them, and I want them to be a role model. I’m definitely not advocating killing your brother, however much you may occasionally want to.

(If your brother is the evil embodiment of the Lord of the Dance’s opponent, sometimes you don’t have a choice. But hey, maybe you could just whack him around the head with one of your jig shoes and then tie him up in a cupboard where he couldn’t cause any harm, right?)

everyone has thought about killing someone

I’m not sure whether I’m trying to say that everybody can be a hero, no matter what they’ve done, or that everybody can be a villain no matter how good they might appear at the start. Is it positive affirmation, saying that everybody has a chance to do something good although the rest of the world perceives them as evil, or is it the ultimate lack of faith in humanity, considering us all capable of becoming cold-blooded killers? Even I’m not sure, and I kind of think it might be both.

It’s also weird, I noticed, that I tend to have so many characters dying as a result of another’s wish for revenge or justice, given that I am utterly opposed to the death penalty in real life. I’ve spoken in the past about my villainous characters, and how I believe that they can all be redeemed, so I rarely have them defeated without it resulting in their redemption. And yet the heroes are so often martyred, perhaps because I unconsciously know that if I let them live, they will only disappoint me.

As far as I can remember, I’ve hardly read any books where the hero, or one of them, kills another prominent “good” character, and this is not supposed to be perceived as a negative thing. Looking at my bookshelves now, I can’t identify a single one, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t one I’ve missed. Am I making a mistake? Shouldn’t I stick to more self-evident morality, where bad guys kill and good guys are merciful?

I don’t know. For me, the most interesting books have always been the ones where I have finished reading them and been unable to clearly identify who was supposed to be ‘good’ and who was supposed to be ‘bad’. It’s so much more interesting to write about a bunch of characters who just want different things, since this creates an equal amount of conflict but doesn’t create the assumption that some people are just born evil.

A good example of this would be the A Song Of Ice And Fire series by George RR Martin (Game Of Thrones), when nothing is black and white and it’s just a series of varying shades of grey. (This turn of phrase seems particularly appropriate given the amount of sex in that series. I swear down, nobody warned me about that and after the first hundred pages of book one, I was so horrified I almost stopped reading.) Throughout the series, characters we initially dismissed as horrifically evil are redeemed, while others deteriorate morally.

you never know when you might need to kill someone
But murder… Well, it just seems so drastic. In my current novel, I’m not currently planning for my heroine to kill any of her friends or relatives, but that doesn’t mean she’s not going to kill anybody. She’s already killed one named character and an unspecified number of guards and the total is set to rise after the chapter I’m about to write.

Is she still a heroine, then? I mean, a lot of her decisions are incredibly morally dubious. I suppose I’m already emotionally attached to her, because I created her, but my readers may well feel that her actions outweigh her personality.

I’ll have to wait and see what they think. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve got any books where characters kill their siblings, best friends, lovers, and it’s not shown to be a terrible mistake. I’d kind of like to know I’m not the only one writing them — at the moment, I’m wondering if I might be something of an oddity.

I realised while writing this that it covered a very similar topic to one of my older posts, “Flawed Heroes and Heroic Villains”, though a slightly different aspect of the debate. It’s a sign I’ve been blogging too long when I start repeating myself, isn’t it?

— — —

*For some reason, Dragon decided that totally said “sleep with”. I’m pretty sure that’s not what I was trying to convince them to do. I have a feeling that would definitely be a mistake.

21 thoughts on “Morally Dubious Heroics

  1. Most, if not all, adult books that stand the test of time are about protagonists with whom the reader can sympathise, not goodies and baddies. They are only a heroine in the sense that they believe their own actions to be justifiable.

    1. Ah, interesting. But what about a character who did something horrific, and then regretted it hugely? Are they more or less sympathetic? They’d be less of a ‘hero’, I guess, because of the act itself, but more appealing because they understand their own failures — but that’s just how I see it.

      1. I was using sympathy technically rather than colloquially: as in the ability to understand a person’s situation by inference from personal experiences (contrasted with empathy which is understanding based on a common experience). So your hypothetical protagonist would be sympathetic based on how easy it was for the reader to accept that, in the same situation, they might do the same thing.

        For me (and potentially many readers) their appeal would come from how they dealt with the regret; to be an effective protagonist it would have to drive them to action. Whether they ultimately redeem themselves or make things worse would determine whether the book is a comedy or a tragedy.

        Of course, as here-and-then-gone films and books show, goodies vs baddies with shiny special effects on top can work if all you want is wish-fulfilment fantasies.

        1. Interesting you should bring up redemption as being a defining characteristic of comedy/tragedy. That’s fascinating; I love tragedies, but I often like making redemption the final act which martyrs the tragic hero.

          YA and commercial literature is, of course, a little less philosophical than true “literary” fiction, but it’s still intriguing to play with complex ideas. And you’re right about the sympathy; I don’t know if I’d do what my characters do. Maybe. Probably not, but then I’m not brave.

  2. I have an adorable *cough* hero who is…a villain. It’s very conflicting. He’s a murderer because of war, but also because of what he believes is right. He’s warped, but what can I say? Like author, like character. STILL. It’s super interesting to think about motives and whether this makes the hero the villain and vice versa. I like the quote that says, “A villain is a hero in his own story.” I totally agree. A villain never sees himself as such.

    I also like it when authors can actually go through with the death of a character. It kills me too, of course, but it gets kind of boring when nobody can. jolly. stay. dead. (Let’s not talk about The Avengers…) XD

  3. This was interesting. It made me think of *Children of Hurin*, a posthumously published novel by Tolkien I read recently, but in that it was sort of fate, or the will of Morgoth, making the protagonist do all the morally dubious things.

    I haven’t read many novels where the hero was a murderer, but I do like to read about characters who are not so black and white — people like Dustfinger in *Inkheart*, Boromir in *The Lord of the Rings* et cetera.

  4. My hero, is, unfortunately, a bit of a villain too. And by ‘bit of a villain’, what I really mean is that he sexually harasses his girlfriend and plans to murder his uncle. I like to think that I can apportion at least part of the blame onto Shakespeare, as I’m writing what is basically fanfic of Hamlet, but really it’s just because I find my character fascinating. And loveable. To say he’s almost everything I hate about society, I really do feel affection for him. It’s quite odd, and I’m going to have to write him some redeeming characteristics because I know that no one else is going to like him. I think perhaps that, as writers who have to get inside the minds of characters, we feel an empathy for ‘bad’ people because we spend so much of our time seeing things from someone else’s perspective.

    On another note, the recent TV show The Escape Artist could be said to have a slightly villainous protagonist. Not to spoil the ending, but he ended up quite evil, and he was a lawyer to begin with…
    But I still loved him. Maybe because David Tennant was playing him, but also probably because (although he encompasses quite a few things I dislike) we’re shown things from his point of view and can understand how he was driven to what he did.

    1. HAMLET
      okay, I saw that and my mind just went, “Well, even if nobody else likes this guy, I will, because Hamlet”. Seriously, my English class hated him and I adored him. Adorable angsty manchild that he is. :)

          1. I suppose they’re right there, but I think it’s hypocritical to hate him for that. I’m pretty sure the Latin for ‘whine and procrastinate’ is the teenagers’ motto.

      1. *smiles* That is pretty amazing. Hamlet actually holds the special place in my life of being the character about whom I have written the most essays (3, in case you were curious), but also of being one of my least favorite characters. And if you’d like to know why I have two essays worth of words to explain why (one essay from highschool is lost to the world)…but maybe, to put it briefly: we find most annoying those bad character traits we see in others that we ourselves possess – and while I have never murdered, (my uncle or anyone else :P), have never driven anyone to kill themselves, (because I spurned them or otherwise), and have never pretended to be crazy (I know some people claim he wasn’t pretending), I have over-thought, poured out my soul in words instead of acting, spoken grandly and done little, and basically waffled myself into patheticness. Just to give you some insight into how someone could dislike Hamlet.

  5. In my first novel, my protagonist kills four people for money before the end of the first chapter. That’s the most violent chapter in the book, but it sets the stage for who and what he is. (Okay, so technically it’s the alien intelligence that lives in his head that does the killing, but the narrator is a willing participant.)

    James, my narrator, is basically a nice guy, but he shares his body with a monster named Catskinner. So my readers get a front row seat to the action and also a protagonist (I won’t call James a “hero”) with whom, I hope, they can identify.

    1. That sounds interesting. I know I’ve had the first few chapters as the bloodiest in the past – it can serve as a warning to readers as to what’s coming!

      Sharing a body though…I bet that’s worse than a flatshare. Do they write passive-aggressive notes to each other?

  6. I can’t think of any good examples (I feel like they exist but I might be deluding myself), but in Graceling, Katsa was a killer. But she hated it and only did it because she was forced to by her uncle. Then she went out of her way to help people b/c she felt bad about having to kill people. Although the book did end with her killing the Big Baddie. So not quite what you meant, but some elements of it.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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