Sunday, 7 October 2012

Should a hero who kills people feel remorse?

Should heroes in films and books have remorse when they kill? Or just move on to the next 'baddie'?

In the past two weeks I’ve seen two movies where there is a lot of fairly indiscriminate killing: The Bourne Legacy, and Taken2. In Taken2, the ‘baddie’ shows the hero (played by Liam Neeson) a dozen photos of men the hero killed a year earlier. Our hero only remembers the face of one of them. The baddie says something like “You don’t even remember the faces of these men you killed. They were sons, husbands, brothers…” I think the baddie has a point.

I grew up watching and reading James Bond, but also less Hollywood-ish and grittier portrayals of spies such as The Ipcress Files with Michael Caine. The killing was sometimes callous, and it always shocked me. Today, so-called action films have high body counts where people are shot, have their necks broken, etc. We watch them munching popcorn. A hundred years ago the image of us watching such movies without revulsion would have been a big talking point. Maybe society has changed. But hang on, it's just entertainment, right? We don’t actually believe this is normal, acceptable behaviour, do we?

In books it’s less easy (maybe I’m wrong) to do this type of thing, except in genre novels like vampire series or horror. I read and liked 61 hours by Lee Child. But the point when the hero Jack Reacher kills someone (I won’t say who) in mid-sentence, in cold blood, shocked me. I had to read it again to make sure he’d just done what I thought I’d read. It said a lot about the character, but also alienated him from me. Up till then Jack Reacher seemed like a very cool guy, but afterwards I knew I’d never want to hang out with him, wouldn’t want him to marry my daughter, etc.

This concern about whether a hero should have remorse or not, and how to tackle it as a writer, came to a head for me recently. I’m working on a new novel (Sixty-Four Metres) that has the current opening line (it is about a heist gone wrong):

Nadia had never killed anyone, but she had a bad feeling about this job.

Midway through the chapter Nadia’s bad feeling becomes reality, and she is forced into taking someone’s life, because a bad-ass named Janssen is about to take hers in a double-cross.. She knows how to fire a weapon, but has never shot at a person before, just tin cans sitting on a wall.

Nadia’s right hand slipped slowly into her anorak pocket and found the Baretta. She inserted her finger in front of the trigger, breathed out fully, and pulled the gun out. Janssen’s head turned first, then his arm waved in her direction. She closed her eyes and fired, the recoil juddering her shoulder, the biting smell of cordite assaulting her nostrils. She opened her eyes.
            “Fucking … bitch!” Janssen was on all fours, trying to get up. His head lifted towards hers, blood spooling from a wound in his chest that had evidently missed his heart, but probably not his lung. He coughed, silver pistol in his right hand, trying to prop himself up on the other so he could take aim.
            Sammy walked over and picked up the package. “Finish him, Nadia.”
            Janssen was shaking, coughing violently. He fired at her, missed. The gunshot should have made her flinch. It didn’t.
            “Finish him!” Sammy shouted.
            Janssen coughed again, blood from his mouth drooling onto the concrete. He took aim. “You’re going to be my bitch in hell, Nad, for all eter–”
            She fired. Her eyes stayed open this time. The bullet ripped his face in two, bloodied flesh and bone blossoming before he crashed down and stilled.
            Her hand started to shake. She felt cold, unable to tear her eyes from Janssen’s corpse. Nadia imagined his soul slipping from his body through the floor, down through the Earth and onwards to the place it belonged. If her Dad was there waiting, he’d beat the crap out of Janssen for all eternity.
            Sammy moved in front of her, seized her shoulders and shook her. “Nadia, listen to me. We have to split up. You take the package. I was there when these idiots screwed up with the police van; the police will be looking for me.” He shook her again. “Are you listening to me?”
            She was. But she’d just killed a man, ripped his life from him. He’d never laugh, curse, hit or kill anyone again. Still... Nadia felt sick.
“Nadia, they have your sister, remember?”
Something clicked inside her head. Yes, she’d just killed a man, but Sammy was right, her sister Katya needed her to see this through, to stay focused. Nadia turned toward Sammy. “Tell me what to do.”

My science fiction books have their fair share of killing. In The Eden Paradox (set fifty years from now) there is an assassin, Gabriel, who has long since lost count of how many souls he has sent on their way, but he lives with it because he knows the danger Earth is facing, and his religion enables him to deal with it. Here’s a paragraph from the first chapter where Gabriel has just killed a man in order to steal his identity and enter a Government building, where he is to protect another man from assassination.

Earlier, Gabriel had to instil panic into the day’s first victim before terminating him, while downloading the visceral feedback. Gabriel now had those terror responses primed in the neural net embedded in his scalp – they would match the dead man’s E-ID card Gabriel held in his left palm. He’d actually apologised to the corpse afterward, taking rather more care than usual with the body. He was a Sentinel assassin, not a psychopath.

As the book progresses and Gabriel’s history is uncovered, the reasons he has ended up as he has, become clearer. This compensates for the apparent lack of remorse when he kills. 

Another character, Micah, is more ‘normal’ (if anything, he is an ‘anti-hero’), and finds it very difficult to kill anyone or anything. But like all of us, he can be pushed to his limit. Here’s an encounter from Book 2, Eden’s Trial, where he is indeed pushed. In this scene, Micah is in a cell with a plexi-glass barrier, shortly before the trial that is the subject of the book, when he receives an unwelcome visitor:

“Hello, Micah, did you miss me?” Louise arrived on the other side of the glass. She carried a box under one arm. She set it on the floor.
            “I saw you die,” Micah said. That’s twice now.
            “Must have been hard for you.”
            He saw through the veneer to what lay underneath. “If I’d have known you were going to surrender, Louise –”
            “Don’t you dare patronise me!” Her eyes whitened. Without warning, so fast he flinched, she punched the glass, causing it to ripple. “You set me up, Micah, killed the best man left alive.”
            He stood his ground, close to the glass. “It was his plan, too. You must know that.”
            “Of course I know that. He…” She turned her back to him, a hand touched a lock of her hair, tugged at it. She cleared her throat, faced him again. She flashed a smile. “This entire day; I’ve been planning it for months. It’s not going at all the way I’d like.”
            He shrugged. “That makes two of us.”
            She leaned her forehead against the glass and spoke softly. “I’d like this glass to be removed, Micah, so I could place my hands around your neck, stop you breathing, watch your lips turn blue, your eyes bulge, go wide with fear in the last throes of life.”
            He looked at her, felt sorry for her. “I know.” He leant his forehead to the glass, too. “But you know what?”
            She didn’t answer.
            “You killed two thousand people in a blink of an eye, without a second thought. You’re sick, Louise. Even for an Alician. I’d say you need help, but we both know you’re beyond that. I’m not even sure Sister Esma wants you back.”
            She uttered one soft laugh. “I always knew you were special, Micah. You never made it to the Alician A-list, but I thought you showed promise back on Earth.”
            She drew away. He reciprocated.
            “If I get the chance, I won’t hesitate, Micah.”
            He nodded. “See you in court shortly, I guess.”
            “Unlikely. Oh, a parting gift.” She picked up the box, took the lid off and turned to leave. Just before she crossed the threshold, she up-ended it. A head with flaxen hair thudded to the floor, eyes wide. It rolled toward him till it rested next to the glass.
            Micah’s breathing crevassed. He pounded the glass with both fists, blood rushing to his head. “Louise! Why did –?” He knew why. He punched the glass with both fists, making it shimmer. “The feeling’s mutual, Louise! You hear me? If I get the chance...”
            There was no reply, only the sound of her footsteps receding. He dropped to his knees, fingers trailing down the glass. He gazed at the head lying so close to him, remembering when he released the explosive bracelet from her neck, her in his bed, the last time he saw her on the bridge... He banged his head against the glass, repeatedly, eyes misting.

Even with such provocation, it still isn’t easy for Micah to kill.

The last excerpt on this subject takes the soldier’s perspective, since book 3 (Eden’s Revenge) takes place during a galactic war. Here is a war veteran talking about killing, what it is really like in battle, and how you come to terms with doing it and living with it afterwards:

He called it the bayonet strategy, after the horrors of the First World War trenches, when young men had to learn to kill others directly, pushing cold steel into their enemies’ bellies and hearts, prising the life out of them. Fear made most men do it, because if they didn’t, they’d be on the receiving end instead. Being in space-ships, fighting with energy beams and missiles made it feel more distant, less personal, but in the end it wasn’t. You lock onto your enemy, you touch him, and then you kill him, you take his life from him. That was war. This was what you did to protect those you loved.

So, in writing, unless it is the equivalent of action movies, there needs to be some strong justification or provocation for one person to kill another, especially the first time. Most of us would be profoundly affected if we actually killed somebody, took their life from them. I have a nightmare a couple of times a year where I have accidentally killed someone, and it is the most dreadful feeling, and when I wake up, the most profound relief. For writers therefore, there needs to be some (non-cliché’d) narration on how the hero(ine) ended up being able to kill, or some serious ‘show don’t tell’ of their reactions when they do, or some internal monologue so we know this person isn’t sick or sociopathic. Remember we’re talking about heroes and heroines here, or protagonists you want readers to be sympathetic towards – baddies are a different kettle of fish. For a good study in both, read Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, particularly the first book, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  

The Eden Paradox is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones and Ampichellis in paperback and ebook

Eden's Trial is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon - FREE EBOOK from 8-10 OCTOBER 2012 from Amazon

Eden's Revenge is coming soon...


  1. Ian Fleming’s James Bond seems to be racked by remorse and discusses the nature of evil already in CASINO ROYALE (1953, chapter 20) with Felix Leiter. But his friend subdues any pangs of remorse and tells Bond not to become human - otherwise the world outside would lose such a wonderful machine.
    Accordingly Bond had never liked killing people but when he had to do it, he knew how and forgot about it (GOLDFINGER; 1959, chapter 1). This reflection about the death of a Mexican grower ends with the question if there is anybody in the world who wasn't somehow, perhaps only statistically, involved in killing his neighbour?
    When Bond deliberately not shoots the blonde violoncellist in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1962) and his colleagues threatens to put that incident in his report, he wearily answers that “with any luck it'll cost me my Double-O number.” Enthusiasm and zest for work (here: killing) might look different. Nevertheless, his performance is both human and still within the envelope.

    1. I always preferred the rendering of James Bond in the books than the films, though I'd not read Casino Royale so not seen the excerpt you cited, which seems pretty crucial. I think when these heroes become pure killing machines we lose connection with them, so at least some occasional reflection us necessary. I like the concept of an envelope - we want our heroes to be near the edge, maybe riding it, and maybe, just once, going over the edge, but they have to return pretty quick. Anyway, thanks for the comment and the Bond references.


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