It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
OPTIONAL QUESTION: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever googled in researching a story?
MY ANSWER: A homemade bomb. In my short story collection Squirrel of Magic, there is one story where the heroine, a modern witch, has to disarm a bomb by magical means. I was scouring the internet for the materials that might be used, and all the while, I was afraid that some law enforcement agency might appear on my doorstep and demand an explanation. To my relief, they never did.
I’ve been contemplating the different ways readers, as well as fictional characters, perceive killers in fiction. As far as I can determine, killers come in several categories.
1. Unquestionably bad guys, murderers. They kill for pleasure or for greed or for power. They kill anyone who stands in their ways. They are psychopaths and villains, and all of us revile them. No ambiguity there.
2. Soldiers of any variety. They kill indiscriminately, because they have been ordered, and the society approved of those orders. We don’t blame soldiers for their victims’ lives. We feel compassionate about soldiers. If anyone is to blame for all those corpses that litter the armies’ footsteps, it is politicians and high-ranking officers who keep their hands clean and send others to do their dirty jobs. No doubts occupy the readers’ minds (or the fictional characters’ minds) about the treatment of soldiers in fiction. Soldiers are our heroes, standing between us and harm. Hooray to them.
3. There is a sub-category of soldiers – the ones who kill on orders – killers for hire: mercenaries and assassins. There is a curious fascination with them in fiction, especially genre fiction. Personally, I hate these cold-blooded professionals, but in my opinion, they are little different from soldiers. Both get paid to kill. Both don’t know their victims and don’t care. Often, an assassin becomes a protagonist in a speculative fiction story, and it makes me angry. I don’t think assassins deserve the aura of heroic and noble suffering some authors imbue them with.
4. Vigilantes. These guys or girls kill multiple times as well, but unlike the previous three types of killers, these ones make moral judgement before they kill. They select their victims carefully: they only kill those they consider evil. Consequently, readers and fictional characters alike hero-worship vigilantes, put them on pedestals, equate them with super-heroes. But here lies a moral dilemma. Perhaps, for some, the vigilante’s victims are not so bad. They’re someone’s parents or children or friends, or they represent an opposite political faction. From some point of view, there is nothing different between a vigilante and a serial killer of the #1 category.
5. Accidental killers. These people inspire the most controversy in fiction and life. They killed once, and they made a moral judgement too. Usually, they killed out of desperation, to protect or avenge themselves or someone else. Sometimes, it is a mercy killing, to help someone escape the endless suffering. Unfortunately, they are not protected by society-sanctioned orders, like soldiers, or by the honorable mystery aspect that surrounds vigilantes. Unlike all the other killers, one-time killers feel guilty for taking a life, and all of us, in real life and in fiction, blame them too. We are afraid of them. We shun them. We say: “They killed once. They can kill again.” But can they really? Why do we forgive a soldier for taking thousands of lives, but can’t forgive our neighbor for killing his daughter’s rapist?
I think of all the killers, in fiction and life, the last variety deserve the most respect and understanding. They deserve our deepest compassion. They’re, more often than not, true heroes, and they definitely deserve our forgiveness. And they deserve a different treatment by the law than the harsh one dished out to them.
Do you agree?