This post is not about telling stories about how this dude ended up dead in your walk-in freezer. Leave me out of that. You going to jail, so just accept it.
No, this post is about when killing feels necessary, when it isn’t, and what separates the two.
To illustrate this, I’m going to invite my good friend Adam Jensen. He’s an ex-SWAT commander-turned-private security dude from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a superb game from Ubisoft. After a terrible worker’s comp claim, Adam returns to work as a cybernetically enhanced dude. He can be stealthy, hackery, sweet talking, or plain ol’ shootery.
But not subtle. Adam doesn’t really do subtle.
One of the things I really liked about the game was it offered you different ways to play. You really didn’t have to gun your way through the game. In fact, there was a trophy for not killing anyone…except for the boss fights the game originally mandated you do. Had to kill them, so they didn’t count.
Most of the time, I alternate. Adam isn’t necessarily a great guy. You can play him as a Terminator if you want, or you can be totally nonlethal. It’s up to you, but I find I don’t want Adam to kill pointlessly.
Come out to the coast. We’ll get together, have a few laughs. Also, my cyberoptic assumes I’m a moron who will not recognize a vent cover.
Deus Ex also lets you recreate great moments from Die Hard by letting you crawl through kilometers of air ducts. This is how you bypass gauntlets of armed soldiers/gang members/people handing out fliers.
Playing Solitaire? AGAIN? You’re gonna pay for that.
Here’s the thing, though. Most of the time, I didn’t engage in willful slaughter, even though the game doesn’t penalize you for it. I’m telling myself Adam’s story and I don’t want him to be capping civilians in the alley because they just won’t MOVE. Even the multitude of guards survive my comings and goings.
Except for Jack…because he mocked the Detroit Tigers.
There were moments, though, where my Adam does not do the benevolent thing. Like the first time he encounters the guys who gave him his worker’s comp event. Adam goes into “I am the Angel of Death. The time of purification is at hand.” mode and quietly takes out everyone and disables all the alarms. Why? Because these guys killed dozens of people and ground Adam into hamburger all in the name of greed.
Adam’s world is populated by mostly innocent people, just like our stories.
In the Stormcaller series, Isaura goes from being homeless for a year to becoming a witch in a very different world, a harsh place where nearly every adept has had to kill. For Isaura though, I’ve tried to ensure that she doesn’t kill because it’s fun or expedient. She’s killed in self defense, or in defense of others. She had a dark moment where she very much killed in anger.
All of those moments advanced the story and represented change or conflict for her as a character. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t amount to anything other than pandering to the audience.
When a group of cybernetic killers come in and slaughter an apartment complex just to reach you, it’s okay to kill them right back.
At what point though, does the character recognize how much they’ve changed? People who have killed on more than one occasion often become detached from what happens. Sociopaths feel nothing for their victims, while soldiers and such are trained to think of enemies as “rendered combat ineffective” rather than dead.
During one phase of the game, thousands of innocents are turned into mindless killers by the bad guys. I can’t kill them. It’s just not right. Even after mowing down a barracks full of mercenaries, there’s a line I can’t cross.
If your main character deals with death and destruction on a chapterly basis, it might do well to have another character check on them.
Sidekick: “What’s wrong?!”
MC: “Um, nothing. Why?”
Sidekick: “Well, you ARE covered in blood.”
MC: “Oh, right. I had to get some eggs.”
Sidekick: “Did you reach INTO the chickens for them?”
MC: “No! I ran into some assassins.”
MC: “I got the eggs.”
Sidekick: “You need therapy.”
Most main characters shouldn’t be that nonchalant about killing, especially if their job description isn’t “Death Incarnate” or “Assassin.” Sidekicks and secondary characters really shouldn’t take it well. It’s important to mine this sort of thing and flesh it out. If their arc takes them into that kind of dark place, show what it costs them. This sort of thing carries a price. It should cost them a relationship (“Hi, honey! I just shot up a busload of killers!”) and probably carry some legal consequences.
By the end of Assassins, Isaura is definitely getting the hang of killing people, but her world is also starting to come apart. Love interest? Gone. Law enforcement interest? Omnipresent. Enemies? Multiplying. Allies? Thinning out a bit.
Killing, even in fiction, should have an impact on something beyond the carpeting. It should reflect your character’s determination and goals, as well as carry a price they should fear, if nothing else.
It may be easier to destroy than to create, but it’s also more costly.