I don’t think it’s controversial to say that killing is abhorrent. But in my novelette series, particularly the latest story, there is a great deal of cultists to be killed. I don’t particularly want to dive into the protagonist’s slow mental breakdown at the horror of war, but flintlocks do not have a stun setting. They have voiced a distaste for killing, but a belief in its necessity (a message I worry about. Even if sometimes true, it is too often misapplied). But is that enough?
There is also another character who really does not want to kill, because she used to do a lot of killing as the warbeast of a crime lord. I’m worried both that her reluctance to kill will shine badly on those that do, and that just knowing she has killed a lot in the past will turn readers against her despite her self-reformation.
How do you handle protagonists that kill and the killing they have done, are doing, and will do?
Hey Tiberia, great to hear from you again!
First off, I wouldn’t worry about people disliking the former warbeast because she killed in the past. Most of the time, audiences form their opinion of a character based on what they do once the story starts, so even if she killed people who didn’t deserve it, most people won’t care unless she starts killing innocents in the present.
For that matter, audiences don’t tend to view killing as a bad thing in itself. Context is everything, and if a villain is an active and deadly threat, then most people will be okay with the hero using deadly force. Of course if a character goes around killing people for no reason, especially if those people are helpless and nonthreatening, the character will seem evil, but killing is not generally viewed as automatically evil. In fact, characters who go on about how they don’t kill can earn an audience’s ire much faster than their lethal counterparts. This is especially common with characters like Batman, who claims not to kill yet uses obviously deadly methods (Batman owns a lot of machine guns), or Green Arrow in the current CW series, who makes a point about not killing the rich bosses but has no issue slaughtering their hired soldiers.
At the same time, characters who seem to display glee or joy at the prospect of killing are quickly viewed negatively by the audience, unless the character is clearly supposed to be villainous. You can see this in the first Dark Tower book, where Roland gets way too excited about having to mow down a bunch of hostile townsfolk, and in Batman vs Superman, where Bruce murders a bunch of goons who are clearly no threat to him.
For your specific situation, it could definitely get overly brutal if the protagonist has to kill such a large group of people. For that matter, it could just get boring, since doing it with single-shot flintlocks is going to take a while. This could change based on the specifics of your story, but I see three possible solutions.
- The cultists could be captured instead of killed. Perhaps after the protagonist dispatches whatever evil the cult was summoning, the remaining cultists surrender.
- The cultists could escape! Instead of staying to face the victorious protagonist, they flee into the shadows, perhaps to fight another day.
- If it’s absolutely necessary for the cultists to all die, the protagonist could use some kind of explosive. Perhaps they’re all in the summoning chamber, and the hero roles in a barrel of powder with a burning fuse. If you go this route, it’s important that the cultists be an active threat, perhaps in the middle of summoning their elder god; otherwise the hero will look like a monster.
Hope that helps, and good luck with your writing!
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