Death in writing: the ultimate punishment

Today, I’ll share my thought on using death sentence in writing, including the impact of setting and culture on the (dis)favor of death sentence.

Death sentence was widely used in Earth’s history and went on decline only ‘recently’ (since 18th century). Approach to it varies by location, culture, and beliefs. These three aspects should be reflected in writing, should the author decide to use such a moment. Likewise, different execution methods are preferred in different situations. Those are also limited by the setting (fantasy or historical settings won’t probably feature guns or electric chairs).

The arguments used in favor of death sentence are several: no risk of repeated crime, lower cost (compared to lifelong imprisonment), or setting an example to deter other potential offenders. Likewise, there are several arguments against it, such as: the sentence is irreversible in case of error, potential discrimination, taking away the criminal’s chance to reform, or reducing justice to revenge. Eventually, in a fictional society, it’ll be down to which of those are more important to their leaders. Same with what crimes are worthy of the ultimate sentence.

Another fact to consider are the readers: most present-time countries are against death sentence and so using it for small crimes and shock value might alienate the readers. Hence, it carries some risks. Without significant risks (regarding the reaction of readers), death sentence can be used for crimes against humanity/war crimes and (repeated offenders of) violent crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, or torture. Likewise, treason can be punishable by death in several societies.

There can also be an aspect of choice, weird as it might sound: in one fantasy book I’ve been reading, there was an irreparable rapist (the acts were not shown directly, though), who was given the choice to lose either his penis or his head (in modern setting, chemical castration could be an option).

Death sentence, especially if carried out on the spot, requires some specific character traits for those executing the criminals – it would do no well if it induced guilt. This collateral damage might be another factor against death sentence. One of the fantasy books featuring a death sentence had a character say something along the lines of if you sentence someone to death, you should be willing to carry it out yourself – something that points out the fact that the one making the choice needs to stand behind it and believe it’s the best way.

A shift in opinion

One thing I’ve been exploring in my writing was a situation where someone generally against death sentence might vouch for it, especially in cases where long-term inprisonment would carry significant dangers. I’ll use a quote from the first draft of my to-be book two for this purpose:

“If we lock them up for half of their life or more, what hope is there for them to reform? What hope is there that they won’t be even more dangerous after? What hope is there that they’ll see a motivation to reform instead of bitterness when they are released?
Keeping them together in the prison, even if separated enough, would mean that, sooner or later, we’ll let caged monsters back into the world, at least some of them hungry for revenge. Death sentence feels like better step for safety of our lands in the long term, if it’s used in extreme situations like this.”

Taken from the first draft of Eternal Defenders book two.

Genre specifics

This eventually gets me to genre specifics. Historical fiction shold follow what is known about its setting and stay true to it – medieval times favored death sentence and torture; using today’s standards would be inconsistent.

Likewise, Sci-Fi and fantasy might have offenses that are not present in our world. By this, I don’t mean magical ways of murder or torture but completely ‘new’ offenses – such as mind control. Whether magically or techincally induced, using someone else to do the dirty work might be seen as acombination of two highly despicable crimes: violation of someone’s mind and the crime perpetraded through it (which would most likely be violent).

Fantasy and Sci-Fi allow some other possibilities for crimes unseen in reality such as draining the victim’s power/energy, new forms of unethical experiments, necromancy, and possibly more. Some of them might (again, depending on the fictional society) be worth the ultimate sentence.

To wrap this up: as with any potentially sensitive topic, death sentence should, first and foremost, stay true to the setting. And, as usual, I’ll welcome your opinions on this matter.

Death in writing mini-series:
Intriduction (7.7.) – Impact on story (14.7.) – Emotions (21.7.) – Death sentence (28.7.) – Last rites (4.8.) – Sacrifice (11.8.) – Cheating death (18.8.)

6 thoughts on “Death in writing: the ultimate punishment

  1. Your excerpt poses powerful opposing debates, as does your post. The controversy would add a fantastic level of tension and create an interesting obstacle to workaround.
    I’ve yet to sentence anyone to die in my novels, I tend to use imprisonment and possible reform. However, in my latest WIP, my MC knows if she’s caught steeling she’ll be hung. 😅

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your kind words.
      The two-paragraph speech doesn’t give full insight and I might post a larger excerpt as a sample when it’s closer to being finished. The debate on what to do is something I gave a lot of attention from several points of view and the five or so characters each share their reasons why they should (or not) get the axe. More so when this comes from a pro-reformation character who’d favor prison over death. Some of the opinions are purely pragmatic (the head jailer simply says that feeding hundreds of lunatics for centuries will cost a lot) while others consider other aspects – such as how such a harsh punishment could affect the few warlocks remaining free: would they be afraid and hide, or would they desire vengeance and cause more chaos?
      So, I believe this is a complex issue which can show more about the setting and the involved characters and, in historical or fantasy setting, the nature of a sovereign who tends to make the final decision. It doesn’t happen to me often but I am really proud of the whole chapter and the way I show different approaches to such a dilemma.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting topic! I agree with everything you wrote under the Genre Specifics section. The death penalty has evolved and changed throughout history. It is also different in various parts of the world (where a mob might be the only source of “policing” around).

    I do like that you pointed out the sci-fi aspect of it. Reminds me a lot of Minority Report (2002 movie).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The subject of a death sentence in any form is not for a Lily livered fellow like me, however I couldn’t help reading through this excellent insight on various scenarios of application. Tomas, you’re simply a writer of great gift and depth. Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

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