When Heroes Kill: Character, Culture, Context

Like everyone else on the planet (it seems), we’ve been watching the adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil on Netflix. It’s an excellent series, with great acting, great writing, character development for EVERYONE, even the villains, and better treatment of women than any of the other comic adaptations, big or small screen, that I’ve yet seen. (Netflix did not pay me to say this.)

I never followed Daredevil the Book, although I must have seen the character around in other books or read about him or something, because when the Ben Affleck movie version came out (I liked it. So sue me.), I already knew the basics of the character. In fact, I must have learned his origins early on, because when I read the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles origin story, my first thought was “OMG, they came out of the same accident that made Daredevil!!!!”

Anyway, one thing I didn’t know was that a central theme of the Daredevil mythos is, “Is it okay for the hero to kill, or does that make him as bad as the villains? How do you accomplish your mission without crossing that line?” I’ve nutshelled the idea here, because it’s a complex question that would take me many more words to properly express. In comic books, as well as in much literature in a contemporary setting, the heroes DON’T KILL. It’s part of what defines them, the reluctance to take a life and the willingness to turn criminals over to the law. They might beat the crap out of them first. They might maim and mutilate. But they don’t kill.

In the mid-eighties, when I was doing my heaviest comic book reading, several heroes crossed this line. Green Arrow and Batman both come to mind (I was mostly a DC reader), but there may have been others. There may be others now. And for the purposes of this post, I’m talking about straight-up superhero books rather than darker anti-heroes or horror books, where people got killed all the time.

I started thinking about this again, watching Daredevil, because it’s a question I had to face in my own work: Can the hero take out the villains and still be a hero? When I was writing A Maid in Bedlam, it was one of my central problems as an author. I wanted him to do it, without question. I wanted him to do it because I’d given him a sword and I wanted him to use it. Because the idea of staging a giant bloodbath on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder tickled me. And, frankly, because a big, well-built guy competent with a sword is a huge turn on. But it made me queasy, because the bad guys were humans, not supernatural entities. I didn’t know if letting Timber kill them would be okay.

Except, if he didn’t, the problem would remain. You couldn’t keep most of these people in a jail; I established that early on. Not unless you denied them any kind of human interaction pretty much forever, which would be inhumane. Well, long story short, I had my bloodbath. My central issue became keeping my protagonists out of prison. And none of my readers rose up to complain about my choice.

Why not?

“Violence isn’t always the answer, he knows. Some would say it’s never the answer. “Violence begets violence,” goes the old saw. It feeds on itself and is never satisfied. When you’ve had your revenge, wiped out your enemies, what then? It’s a letdown, a disappointment, coming off that energy. Like after sex, when things go dark for a time, and you feel as if there really should have been more to it. So you keep after it, keep after that transcendent feeling, until you wear yourself out, and then, at least you can sleep.

Lots of heroes kill. They kill the villains in Epic Fantasy and Historical Fiction, in Science Fiction and Thrillers and Paranormal. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo killed Stormtroopers and TIE fighter pilots. Jamie Fraser kills his uncle and numerous English. Rand al’Thor kills people (though at times he feels really bad about it). So why not the heroes of Contemporary and Urban Fantasy? Why not those heroes who are larger than life, who populate THIS world? Oliver Queen spent the entire first season of Arrow putting down criminals and getting vilified for it. Then he had a change of heart. But has it made him any more effective in pursuing his mission? Has it made him any more popular? Current events in the series point to no.

There are several good reasons not to kill your villains off. In serialized fiction, the obvious one is you might need them again in another story arc. Creating a good villain is hard work! Don’t dispose of them unless you absolutely have to. Another reason not to kill your villains would be that it doesn’t serve the story. I’m still mad that Lursa and B’Etor were summarily dispatched in the travesty that was Star Trek: Generations. But why balk at getting rid of horrible people you don’t need?

By the way, I’m not proposing any definitive answer one way or the other. I’m just looking at something that interests me.

One question that comes up when you raise this topic is: “How long can you keep doing that before you become the thing you’re trying to stop?” Another is, “Can violence lead to lasting peace?” (And thanks to Kris Holt for raising both of those on Twitter when I was exploring this question there.) My personal answers are, I don’t think anything leads to a truly lasting peace, because everything is ephemeral. It’s probably no good to stir up conflict or to go looking for it, but being prepared to meet it? Sure. Of course, this raises the question of “How do you know when you’re prepared enough?” which can lead to arms races and all kinds of tricky stuff when you take it into a larger sphere. But I’m talking about a personal level, rather than a governmental one. As for the first question, I personally don’t believe it follows that one thing necessarily leads to the other. All kinds of things make a difference: Motivation, Ego, Mindfulness to name a few. It’s true that when you train in a martial art, MOST of the practice is learning to balance the Art with the Martial. Learning to cross the street when you sense danger, rather than take on the gang. Or so my Sensei used to say.

I’ve also got a cop-out answer: The question isn’t really applicable in my books, because my hero isn’t a vigilante.

 He’s pretty sure Caitlin would tell him violence isn’t the answer at all. She has a soft heart. She feels bad about killing slugs in the garden. But Caitlin never had the experience of the world that he had. She  turns inward; he turns outward. Everything he is, he shows to the world, even if the world finds it an affront. She has secrets at Her core that no one can penetrate. She protects Herself from the world, and he flies in its face. So he’s learned that there must be violence, sometimes. After all, the slugs in the garden must be killed. They’d take over, else.

Of course, context matters. In a historical novel, we can say that killing each other in the year 1233, or 1842, wasn’t uncommon. People lived closer to death. In Science Fiction, in Epic Fantasy, we get to define the terms. Plus, those villains we choose for our heroes to kill could often be replaced with cardboard cutouts. We know them only as antagonists, not as people. I’ve noticed when authors delve into their villains as people, examine what motivates them instead of simply saying “Bad Guy,” the characters are much less likely to meet their Fates at the hand of the hero. Because then the hero would be killing a human being rather than a trope. And it’s not okay to kill human beings, or to “humanize” the alien species we mean to kill. We know the Cave Troll in Lord of the Rings is a danger. We never hear about the Cave Troll’s childhood or the Cave Troll’s mother.

I do this myself. It’s hard for me, because I never have been able to subscribe to notions of absolute good and absolute evil. One reason I like my first book less than others is that the antagonists are less fully developed (and I still had a problem with disposing of one of them). I do believe that people aren’t inherently one thing or the other, but that circumstances make us what we are. So, in order to justify getting rid of them, I have to dehumanize my villains. I don’t explore them enough as people. And I still have a horrible time coming up with actions bad enough to merit a death sentence.

I believe that we like to think of our contemporary culture as more civilized, and that in civilized societies we don’t go around killing people out of hand. Not up close and personal. War doesn’t count. The rhetoric of war allows us to dehumanize vast numbers of people, be they of a different culture, religion, race, gender, or what have you, the better to slaughter them. When you kill someone up close and personal, it’s “murder,” no matter what your justification. Now, I don’t have a problem with this (I’d hope it would be obvious that I’m not encouraging terminal solutions to arguments). I’m not even a supporter of “capital punishment” (lovely euphemism). The justice system is, in my opinion, too flawed in many regards to hand out death sentences. If new evidence comes up afterward, it’s too late. If a capital charge is proven beyond doubt, the appeals process is so drawn-out that it becomes its own punishment. I do believe that some criminals probably need to be removed from society on a more or less permanent basis. I also believe their numbers are smaller than we think, and even of those possibly quite a few would do well on some kind of frontier planet, where “less civilized” actions might be an actual life skill. Pity we don’t have one.

But the question remains to me: Does the choice to apply terminal justice make a person less of a hero? In the case of Timber “He-Man” MacDuff, I don’t like to think so. He’s not arbitrary. He does what he has to and no more. When he’s killed, it’s been to protect those less able to protect themselves, and it’s always the last possible solution (except for those couple times when he was younger and more hot-tempered). He remembers every face.

As far as writing goes, I think you can choose one way or the other and still make your character sympathetic. It’s a matter of balance, in the character and in the story. Timber is both a swordsman and a healer. His blade has two edges: One to harm, and one to heal. Sometimes surgery is necessary. I expect the question of who made him Judge, Jury, and Executioner will come up again in a later book (actually, I know it will). For now, I thought it through and gave him leave to do what he felt necessary.

Some people think they have no right to judge. To label this one a slug, and this one not. To make the choice between life and death.
He’s not one of them.

(All block quotes taken from “Summoning Scáthach,” in the collection Fits o’ the Season, © 2012 by Katherine Lampe)

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