Since this deals with attitudes, I won’t be addressing strategy and tactics here; it’s mostly about the social and cultural associations of battles, duels, and other methods of killing. Also, it has few separate points; most of the ideas I wanted to present are gathered together under general ones.
1) What is justified?
Usually, “socially approved” methods of killing in fantasy are restricted to duels, self-defense, executions, and killing in war. There are also deaths that get looked the other way from—say, if a noble murders a poor man who has nobody to complain about his death—and deaths that are justified to a limited number of people—such as assassination. But if those get actual social approval, and rhetoric exists to justify them and support them all over the place, and people speak openly about it, and those who kill that way aren’t cast into prison, you’ll need to work harder on the makeup of your society.
I think this puzzles me most with assassination. It’s worst with assassins who wear some symbol, like a tattoo, that identifies them that way. People just treat them like anyone else? While knowing that the assassin’s blade could be turned against them the next day if someone else paid enough money or they committed whatever offense the Secret Assassin Code deems worthy of death? Um, okay.
Seriously, even executioners usually didn’t have that great a reputation. People tend to exhibit some of the same uneasiness around pathologists, too, and morticians. Death makes people uneasy. Now, perhaps the assassins will cause some discomfort and still be admired anyway, as a successful duelist might be, but to have their profession cause no ripple at all is damn fishy. (This is one reason I liked the double reputation of swordsmen in Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint; the work they do is flashy, and so some characters applaud it, but others consider them no better than common killers, and they’re often poor, crude, and violent men).
Likewise, think about self-defense, and about executions. Try to avoid making your criminal codes a perfect replica of the ones you live with. Would they put a woman to death for killing her abusive husband? That might seem like a horrible idea indeed, but that defense hasn’t always worked even in our world; at one time in some European criminal justice systems, a woman who killed her husband committed petite treason, a worse crime than murder. In a fantasy society where a husband has a right to do whatever he likes to his wife, her killing of him would probably not be put under the category of self-defense.
Think this through carefully. Are duels allowed? Does your justice system have a category for war crimes, and if so, how does it distinguish them from soldiers’ normal activities? What are the common methods of execution? How heated are arguments over them? What level of authority does someone have to have to kill, and how clear should the proof of the crime be? (For example, would a farmer be tried for murder if he shot a chicken thief he caught red-handed?) I think nearly any combination can work, but gaps and holes will show up if no thinking is done, particularly if the hero commits a violent crime said to be worthy of execution but then is not punished for it.
2) How does death by violence affect the afterlife?
Assuming, of course, that the religions you design have afterlives.
Perhaps the body of someone who died by violence can only be disposed of in a certain way. Another historical example: Suicides were usually not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, since suicide was a terrible sin. Perhaps suicides in your world are burned, or sent off to the afterlife with a pinch of salt under their tongues to symbolize the tears they should have shed instead of turning their hands on themselves.
Does the ghost of someone who died by violence return? With some reason, many ghost stories concern the spirits wanting revenge on their murderers. Perhaps they need to get the living to help. Perhaps, if violence between members of the same people is a horrific thing in your world, the spirit will be satisfied with the murderer’s repentance or surrender of a good part of his worldly possession, instead of demanding that he die.
Can executed criminals go to heaven? What happens if they’re found to be innocent after death? Does it depend on whether they were hanged, stoned, drowned, burned, pressed to death? Perhaps the site where they usually die is considered unlucky and people keep away from it, rather than coming in droves to witness public executions.
What happens to soldiers, assassins, and others whose daily business concerns death? Are they put in a separate section of the hells or heavens? The Viking afterlife was famous for honoring its warriors, but other religions might feel rather differently; perhaps soldiers are viewed with some distaste, and they have a middling place in the gods’ halls at best. Meanwhile, assassins who have caused the deaths of so many are delivered up to their victims when they finally perish.
I think this is worth thinking about, simply because fantasy religions so often seem bland and underdeveloped. Adding a few customs tied to violent death or being the cause of it can give them real character.
3) Remember that violence against others of the same species isn’t easy.
At least, if you’re working with mammals. It might be different if you’re writing about dragons or large birds.
Most large mammals don’t tend to kill “con-specifics,” those of their own kind. Predators often live far enough apart from each other that they don’t regularly get into battles—like jaguars and leopards—or, if sociable, have hierarchies of conduct that preserve the lives of those involved—like lions and wolves. Sometimes adults will kill cubs and young adults, as is the case with male lions, but it’s easier to drive out troublesome adults of the same size rather than battle with them. Herbivores can have mating contests, as male deer tend towards, but those are even less likely to result in death except by an unlucky accident, such as the points of an antler getting caught in another stag’s chest. And soldiers have to go through long and rigorous training processes to make them into the kind of humans who can kill other humans. Even then, they may find themselves frozen when they have to actually commit the deed. For people who haven’t undergone the mental preparation, it’s much more difficult, which is why you hear more stories of criminals shooting and killing their victims than the other way around, unless, as with the large herbivores, it’s accidental. Nerving yourself up to kill someone else is really, really hard.
That means that having a society where death is “constant” needs a rationale. If everyone involved is a psychopathic and crazy killer who cares about no one but herself, how the hell can they have a society at all?
The easiest way to do this is to have such a strict hierarchy that some people on top think of the people on the bottom as literally less than human, a technique also used in some kinds of army training. “Oh, you killed him? Well, he was only a commoner.” Or: “Oh, you hit her too hard and she died? Well, she was only a servant.” Or: “Yes, it’s too bad she’s dead, but she was only a woman, after all.” Meanwhile, people on the bottom could be badly off enough that they need to turn to desperate kinds of work where death is common and murder barely blinked at.
Another way is to have everyone in the society accept death as a risk that could happen to them at almost any time—which would mean that the hero expressing spluttering outrage when someone killed a friend of his is right out. This is the tactic Steven Brust pursues in the Khaavren Romances, though his style, which mimics Dumás, also helps. Duels take place at the drop of a hat, and when the main characters, city Guardsmen, set out to pursue a murderer, she’s a murderer mostly because she did not obey the rules of dueling in killing her victim. (She’s a painter, the murder victim criticized a painting she spent years working on, and she killed him for it). Later on in the story, the dead man’s son and the painter become good friends, because this is a society where you really can have honor between enemies. It also helps that the characters involved aren’t human and some have genetic predispositions to violence. It’s not a comfortable world for many readers, but it does make sense.
I’d be as interested in reading about a world where people went around murdering each other all the time as I would about any other world setup, I think. But it has to make sense, or people raising children to adult age without murdering them would be unusual, and the society would have no means of replicating itself (certainly people of other places wouldn’t want to visit!)
4) Know what horrors are unique to your society.
I don’t mean methods of killing; I mean what things about death by violence will make it particularly disgusting or gut-wrenching to someone who lives in that society. It’s sort of the opposite of point 1. What makes a death unjustifiable?
For the United States—and possibly other places, but the only in-depth coverage of criminal cases like this I’ve seen has been in the United States—the big bugaboo seems to be the deaths of children. And the worst of the worst are mothers who kill their own children. The uneasiness that swirled around discussions of Susan Smith and Andrea Yates was desperate. There had to be something “wrong” with them in the way that there wasn’t with male serial killers or even men who killed children. They were insane. They were sick. They were incapable of realizing what they were really doing. It seemed, at least from the people I talked to, that no one could comprehend a mother killing her own child for reasons that might apply to any other murder. These were unique because they had to be.
Likewise, murder connected with sexual violence hits a lot of people harder than murder without it. Add children to the mix, and people tend to go a bit crazy, arguing for the relaxation of principles they would uphold at any other time. Or add another broken taboo—cannibalism, say—and the screaming gets louder and worse. There are some killings twenty-first century Western society doesn’t want to think about and cannot consider as self-defense because they basically push every button we have, big-time.
Now think about that in terms of fantasy worldbuilding. What is the ultimate horrible death?
For a highly religious society, it could involve someone being killed in a way that desecrates a church. For one that buries individuals in coffins, being buried alive could be a quiet but persistent fear. For a society that uses magic based on wind, perhaps a magician can kill from a distance, and undetectably, simply by freezing the air in his enemy’s lungs—and no one wants to go out that way, thank you, with no ability to know when she’d die or who might want to kill her. If the people involved live as much in dreams as in the waking world, perhaps sleepwalkers fear battling enemies and then waking to find their loved ones dead around them.
It’s easy to kill a child on-stage and thus appeal to the reader’s sympathies (one reason that a writer who does that is often accused of emotional button-mashing, particularly if the child character has no role in the story but to die). But I think the greater challenge is to bring the imagined society’s buried fears as close to the surface as possible, so that by the time the horrific death comes along, the reader will understand why the characters, and not just she herself, find it terrible.
Class/caste systems is next, according to the poll.