Killing in speculative fiction

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
I recently stumbled on this quote by Voltaire:

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

I have always known that the French philosopher was a wise man, but that particular quote started me thinking. In speculative fiction like fantasy and sci-fi, killing is always a staple, and the murderers are rarely punished. Most speculative fiction books include killing in one way or another. Battles. Assassins. Interstellar wars. Magical quests where unless the hero kills, often multiple times, he can’t get where he is going. Paranormal adventures, where killing is rather the norm. Think about The Lord of the Rings or Ilona Andrews’ extremely popular Kate Daniels series.

Another norm is the hero’s moral quibbles afterwards. He didn’t have a choice at the time; it was either kill the enemy or be killed by them, but afterwards, it seems almost mandatory for any writer to dig into her character’s psyche for a post-killing self-doubts or self-recriminations.

None of us ever wants to encounter death or murder in our day-to-day lives, but reading about them feels okay, not scary at all, and I’m not even talking about mysteries or thrillers. So why did speculative fiction genres adopt killing as one of their darlings? What is our fascination with sudden and gruesome death in the make-believe milieu? Where are those trumpets of Voltaire in fantastic stories?

I’m an extremely peaceful person but even I have killings in some of my stories. I write fantasy after all, and in fantasy, killing appears the easiest way to solve problems. Kill the evil vampire, and everything will be honky-dory, right? But I doubt it could that simple, even in fantasy.

What do you think? Do your heroes kill? Do they indulge in self-flagellations after the fact?



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20 Responses to Killing in speculative fiction

  1. Juneta says:

    Happy IWSG Day. Well in one story my hero kills a demon but he was supernatural himself. I find it hard sometimes, but working on it.

  2. spunkonastick says:

    I’ve only written one story where the lead killed and it was an attacking creature, so not quite the same. She had no regrets nor did I think about dwelling on any of them.

  3. Hi, Olga. I mostly write romance (no killing), but I do dabble in horror of a soft-focus, Twilight Zone variety. Also, in one of my cozy mysteries, the amateur sleuth was forced into a kill-or-be-killed situation, and she suffered terrible recriminations afterward. I think it’s those recriminations that distinguish the heroes from the villains, eh? Happy writing in December.

  4. patgarcia says:

    What can I say but yes. My hero kills. Death is a part of life and in the books I write, the topic of death is not avoided.
    Wishing you a very Merry Christmas.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G

  5. Goes back to that phrase Heather and I coined – blood, boobs, and carnage. The staple of any good fantasy.
    I had space wars in my books, so a lot of killing. I guess not a lot of remorse though.

  6. emaginette says:

    Luke Skywalker did when he destroyed the deathstar. Don’t tell me all the work stations were empty when he took it out. I think only the big bads snuck away.

    So my hero might have killed thousands, but we just accepted it as okay. Sadly, someone pointed this out to me this year. Until then… well I saw him differently.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  7. If I need to kill to save me or save a loved one, I would kill. So of course my “good” characters would kill. My bad characters kill just because.


  8. CV Grehan says:

    We humans do not have tidy, civilized minds. I know I don’t.

  9. This is a really intriguing topic, and as a mystery/thriller, I’ve often thought about it. There’s the whole cathartic aspect of being able to kill characters based loosely on people who have hurt us; and then there’s the desensitization to violence issue. It’s so complex!

  10. rolandclarke says:

    Interesting and challenging post. I am working on a UK-based police procedural so my protagonist avoids killings or rather solves them. In my speculative series – unfinished – the protagonists attempt to avoid killing through non-violent means, but there are a few exceptions. Remorse is there and punishment – appropriate. I try to remain true to my Quaker ancestors, I suspect.

  11. cleemckenzie says:

    I have a hard time letting my characters kill off my other characters, even the nasty ones. Yet it must be done at times. The tricky part for me is just how graphic to make the killing. I’m opposed to violence and avoid it as much as possible in my life, so writing about it takes a lot of effort.

  12. Diane Burton says:

    My MCs haven’t killed anyone…yet. I’m sure if it’s a case of life or death, they will have to. And, yes, I’m sure they’ll have regrets, and nightmares. Have a great month.

  13. Loni Townsend says:

    Yeah, I had one of those “OMG, I killed someone!” moments for my main character. I suppose I never really thought about it with regards to Spec Fic, since I watch a lot of murder mysteries as far as TV shows go. I guess murder is one of the oldest stories in the book, such as the story of Cain killing Able…

  14. Erika Beebe says:

    My hero in my last book commits an accidental murder. The character doesn’t really die though. I guess killing to me would be a last resort as self defense. What a great question to ponder Olga. Thank you 🙂

  15. I have a hard time having my characters kill someone though sometimes the bad guys do kill someone that’s not a major character. And I love reading murder mysteries so I must like it somewhat. Interesting topic.

  16. Interesting questions and timing. I’ve been thinking abut re-binge-watching Game of Thrones….

  17. jmh says:

    Hmm…interesting question. I don’t write fantasy or sci-fi, and in my suspense, the “bad guys” are usually already dead. (Ghosts.) So no problem there.

    In my next book, the protagonist will have to come to terms with accidentally killing a good man, so I’ll be able to delve into this a bit more.

    It has troubled me that death and killing are taken so lightly in cozy mysteries, almost like a game.

  18. I have killing in four of my novels and none of them are speculative fiction! I think killing is involved in a lot of genres because it’s the “worst” think one can think of someone doing, killing another human being or creature. Interesting question!

  19. ChrysFey says:

    Maybe it’s because as writers we believe in put our characters through hell, and that often means death and pain is involved in one way or another.

  20. My heroes don’t kill, just because it isn’t necessary. But I admit to feeling irritated with characters who soul search a lot after killing baddies. I think, oh come on, he was a monster, out to get you, toughen up, blossom! Very hypocritical of me.

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