Pet Peeve: Casual First Kill

Spider-Man vs Wolverine

I have a small pet peeve that comes up from time to time.  Not sure if this bugs other people since we tend to think of killing in action movies as normal.  Yet, how normal should it be for a blossoming hero?

Many times, I’ve read a story or watched a show/movie to see a character kill for the first time and have no response.  I get it when you establish that the character is a sociopath or has had prior exposure to violent death.  If this is a person who has never taken a life and lived a soft life prior to this then it doesn’t make any sense how they can be so casual about the act.  No matter how much one pictures killing in their head, the actual act feels different and heavier.  I believe since I’ve never killed anyone.  Probably should make that one clear.

Personally, I think there should be focus given to how the hero handles taking the life of another person.  Monsters and animals may be shrugged off, but killing another human should make an impact.  It’s something that any person with a healthy psyche would need to come to terms with even if they feel justified.  I know it’s messy and might not be fun for the overall plot, but it’s human.  This gives the characters a dimension that many readers might need to accept what they’ve seen.  Once a person goes about killing and doesn’t seem to care, a reader may lose sympathy or a connection to them.  I know I’ve done that plenty of times with movies and shows.

There are ways around this:

  • Establish that the character has military experience or training.  Example: Delvin Cunningham in Legends of Windemere or Captain America.
  • Establish that they’ve seen so much death that they’re fairly numb to it.  Example: Nyx in Legends of Windemere since it was common for apprentices to die in magical accidents.
  • Establish that the world is violent and you need to kill to survive.  Example: Cassidy in Crossing Bedlam.
  • Establish the character as a sociopath, psychopath, etc.  Example: Any violent, antihero like Lloyd Tenay in Crossing Bedlam.

I know this can be difficult for an author to do because most times it’s a villain who has been killed.  Maybe a goon or a high ranking agent, but it’s usually made clear that the hero took the life of a baddie.  Still, we need to see or hear the justification being made since it’s still a killing.  A hero who beheads a goon and goes ‘well, they deserved it’ can come off as emotionally broken.  It can reveal a darkness that wasn’t there before and might not appear again, which turns it into a glaring character hole.  Even if it’s one scene, there should be some effort into revealing how the hero is handling their actions.

In Legends of Windemere, I touched on this with Luke Callindor.  He was raised to be a hero and had killed many monsters in his adventures.  There were chaos elves at one point, but it was clear that they were seen as monsters by others as well.  Once Luke killed an actual person during a big battle, he had a little trouble.  Not enough to hurt his actions, but I felt he would need time to come to terms with it.  All I did was write a scene where he talked to Delvin about his thoughts and feelings.  He was given advice and told that killing enemies is part of the path he chose, so he needs to find a way to handle it.  That was all I needed to get this point across:

Kill-Shock/Grief-Processing-Acceptance

So, what do you think about characters reacting to their first kill?  Is it just me who wants to see somethign more than moving on?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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9 Responses to Pet Peeve: Casual First Kill

  1. IN one of my books, John Cannon shot a guy and then promptly threw up. I agree the first should have some kind of reaction. Good post.

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  2. L. Marie says:

    This is a really good post. I’ve written a novel where a character kills someone for the first time. It definitely left a mark on him emotionally, though he was trained for this eventuality. His emotional state carries over to another book. So I agree that some sort of reaction seems normal, unless the person is completely heartless and cruel, as you allude to above. I can see why this is a pet peeve. Even a person at fault in a car accident has some shock and remorse, So I can’t imagine someone killing another person who has no reaction whatsoever.

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  3. “There were chaos elves at one point […] Once Luke killed an actual person during a big battle, he had a little trouble.”

    This has been bugging me since I read this post yesterday. I can’t wrap my head around how elves (of some “chaos” variety or otherwise) wouldn’t count as people every bit as much as a human would. Or is it a matter of “Not my species, so I don’t care”?

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