In fairness to myself, it has to be admitted that many of them aren’t. Drake Maijstral doesn’t want to hurt anybody despite his perilous profession, and in fact runs away from fights; Doran Falkner in Knight Moves is mild-mannered; Ubu and Maria in Angel Station are the victims of violence but don’t initiate any themselves; and Aiah in the Metropolitan sequence is pretty much an exponent of the duck-and-cover philosophy of life.
And then there are characters who do brief turns as action heroes, like Nick in The Rift and Gabriel in Aristoi and Terzian in “The Green Leopard Plague,” who aren’t violent people by nature, but who find themselves in peril and are forced to respond.
We also have Martinez and Severin in the Dread Empire’s Fall books, who are in the military and who do violence— sometimes very serious violence— during the course of a war. But when the war ends, so does the violence. It’s a job, not an avocation.
I do write about people who are genuinely violent. Steward in Voice of the Whirlwind, Black Shadow in the Wild Cards books, and Loren Hawn in Days of Atonement are compulsively violent in one way or another. But I hope the text makes clear that these people are not role models. They’re all deeply fucked up, and the violence is a symptom of their fucked-upness.
And then there’s Caroline Sula.
Who is an interesting case.
She’s not a compulsively violent person in the way that Loren Hawn is. Her violence is sometimes motivated by passion, but there is also a large element of self-interest involved. She kills people who get in her way, when she thinks she can get away with it. She not only has no respect for the lives of others, she doesn’t value her own. (And by the way, I deliberately followed the path of the “heinously violent criminal” as outlined in Richard Rhodes’ Why They Kill, an admirable work of nonfiction.)
Sula is a person who will say, “If you don’t stop behaving this way, I will shoot you in the head.” And then, when he doesn’t stop, she does.
What is also significant is that Sula is a girl. Which was a deliberate choice in my part.
I could have had Martinez and Sula exchange roles. Sula could have been the privileged but excluded aristocrat, and Martinez could have been the killer and the imposter. But if I’d done that, the reader who have viewed the characters very differently.
And the reason for that is this as follows: we live in a sexist society. Men and women are viewed in different ways. (I’m sure this is news to you, right?)
If I’d put a man in Sula’s role as a murderer and an imposter, readers would have said, Oh, he’s a thug and a killer. I hate him, and I’m not going to read about him. We come from a society in which there are a dismaying number of male murderers: we dismiss them very easily.
But a female killer doesn’t trigger that response. Instead of being repulsed, we are intrigued. (And not so long ago, we would have been shocked. Raymond Chandler’s killers are almost always women, because it provided such a shock to his audience.)
Nobody’s surprised by a male killer; but a female killer goes against type. Readers are interested in people who surprise them, and they read on.
I could have tried to do my bit for sexual egalitarianism, I suppose, and made Martinez and Sula androgynous and interchangeable, and insisted that readers view them without the cultural blinders with which we all come equipped. Perhaps I would be a more admirable person if I had. (Though I think I would have been pandering to a certain audience, and going against my own experience of how people actually behave. But that’s an argument for another day.)
In the end, I demonstrated that I’m a better writer than I am an admirable person.
What I decided to do— and this quite deliberately— was to intentionally manipulate the sexist responses of my readers, and create sympathy for my killer by making her a girl.
There. I did it, and I’m glad.
I performed this task perhaps a little better than I intended. I’ve had some readers who have gone quite overboard with admiration for Sula (not that she doesn’t have her admirable qualities). I’ve had readers tell me that if they knew Sula were a real person, they’d ask me for her phone number.
Which, if she were real, I would provide, after having carefully written it on a biohazard sticker.