Body Count?

Every so often I get a comment, either from a reviewer or a reader, about how my seemingly “nice” or honest protagonist is either really ruthless or kills too many people… or words to that effect. I understand that such readers want the “ideal” protagonist to accomplish his goals, or even just effect his survival, neatly, and with a minimum of bodies lying around. But real life and realistic fantasy and SF are often messy. Even so, I have to admit that, in some of my SF books, if one looks closely, my protagonists have left body counts that dwarf Game of Thrones. Some have wiped out whole planets, and in one case, essentially sterilized an entire solar system.

Human history has been replete with arguments about ends and means and to what degree the particular means to an end effectively negates the end, including the idea that waging massively lethal wars as a method to ensure subsequent peace never seems to work out that way. And there’s a great appeal to that argument.

The problem in real life and in realistic novels, however, is that each individual and each culture has a different idea about what the “right” way of doing things happens to be, and this makes life difficult for whoever doesn’t fit the mold. Add to this the fact that there are always zealots, who really do believe that they’d rather be dead than change or allow any compromise… and when such zealots have great power, someone who has a different view usually only has three choices: (1) agree/surrender; (2) flee; or (3) fight. Given the mindset of zealots, often agreement is impossible, particularly if the zealot believes, for example, that blue-eyed redheads are the tools of evil and must be exterminated… and you happen to be a blue-eyed redhead. As with the mass migrations we’re seeing now, flight is sometimes possible… at least until the countries to which one can flee close their borders. Which means that, more often than we’d like, the only choice left is to fight.

And if one fights, it’s because one wants to stay alive and hopefully to protect one’s family and community… and in such cases, the individual either breaks a great number of laws and rules or fights, if not both, and whether the individual or protagonist wins or loses, there’s going to be a body count.

After that, should the individual [or character] feel great remorse? My feeling is that some regret is necessary that people were killed, but that great self-flagellation is not required. If the survivor isn’t all that good a person, he or she won’t feel great regret anyway, and if the character or person is otherwise [besides having to kill to survive] a decent being, in most cases, regret is wasted on those who set out to exterminate or conquer others.

Life, of course, is never quite that clear-cut, but when an individual or character or a people is chased and persecuted to the point of death, largely for merely existing, or for being an impediment to the ambitions or beliefs of others. I have to question the need for regret or great hand-wringing over the deaths of the chasers and persecutors.

But then, there’s always the question of why someone is chased or “persecuted” and whether such claims are valid… but that’s another story, perhaps similar to one on the front pages.

5 thoughts on “Body Count?”

  1. Frank Hamsher says:

    I have never had to kill another, so my opinion may be utter bollocks, but it seems to me that your average introspective human being tends to greatly regret making a choice which has a largely negative effect on other human beings.

    A lot of qualifications in that statement. Nonetheless…

    That is why I enjoy your books because their protagonists do agonize over their decisions.

  2. This is a topic that could be discussed at great length, but I will offer only a few thoughts. Firstly, I have generally found your protagonists sympathetic even when they have been responsible for a high body count. Secondly, I think people (both protagonists in books and readers of those books) may react differently to three types of killing: (i) killing of the primary people one opposes, such as the rulers, (ii) killing of soldiers on the opposing side, (iii) killing of noncombatants. For me, I have difficulty accepting it if a protagonist kills children — perhaps as collateral damage — and isn’t haunted by it.

  3. Tom says:

    If one considers that a situation is as it is perceived, then: the more out of balance a situation is, the more likely the corrective action will differ from the morals of the protagonists: therefor the deeper the individuals regret for the corrective action and the consequences.

    I have sometimes agreed with the depth of regret you have depicted and at other times not: we are after all different people, with different experiences, so this cannot be surprising.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    Causing or being in the presence of death or people who are dying does change a person. For some, it brings out their empathic and/or sympathetic side (no, they are not the same). Others, it makes callous. Then there’s the whole gallows humor idea – joke about it to provide emotional distance from the event. As an ED doc, I’ve been all of these. It does change people. Those who can’t deal with it well don’t stay in my line of work… and those who stay in for a long time tend to be some of the most stable, compassionate people you’ll ever meet… as long as you don’t try to BS them.

    I believe that the Recluce and Parafaith books show this very well, though I would expect more gallows humor, esp. with those who are soldiers/marines/etc. The Imager series perhaps shows more indifference – or at least more of a ‘if it’s not them, it would be us’ mentality… but I will stipulate that the Imager culture was very different from the others.

  5. M. Kilian says:

    I feel like a huge theme in your books has always encapsulated the costs of trying to do the right thing, in some character’s cases at any cost.

    A great example of this for me was the juxtaposition of how the characters felt about the events of The Magic Engineer vs The White Order/Colours of Chaos.

    Despite just trying to carve out a living and help his friends, Dorrin ends up causing far, far more death than if they had just ran away and left the Spidlarians to their fate. He isn’t ruthless, it gets harder and harder but as with all of your books the people are placed in hard situations, and try to make what they think are the best decisions, often with disastrous consequences depending on what they turn their abilities to.

    Unlike many books I’ve read these days, the characters pay, and then some for their actions. Order users in the Recluce series are often struck blind for causing violence, and suffer pain at their own response to their violence for the rest of their lives. Hell, Justin almost dies trying to reconcile the death he causes.

    Even in the Imager series, a character almost freezes himself alive and permanently alters his appearance as his own perspective of himself changes in wake of the death he causes, suffering horrendous nightmares and existential crises while he’s still trying to fix problems.

    The protagonists feel real, in that they do make things worse often and accidentally get a lot of people killed when they get involved. They do this accidentally or in a reactionary way, and it mentally disturbs many of them. Some, like Cerryl, may have a more military approach to much of the carnage they take part in as a soldier might, but still show cracks when they’re forced to kill a civilian in the name of the law.

    Your protagonists aren’t perfect- they’re people, and that’s what always brings me back to read your books.

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