Thursday, August 23, 2018

Characters who contemplate murder

The main thing these characters have in common is that they carefully contemplate committing murder, and plan how it'll take place. There's no flying off the handle and losing it in heated moments for these guys. Most of them carry it through to the letter, although a couple decide not to. But in each case we get insight into all their deliberation and forethought. We seem to lap up the opportunity as readers, because there's one more surprising fact about my selection. Even though these are murderers or wannabes, every guy on this list receives plenty of empathy, admiration and even outright love from fans. I'll rattle them off, and you can try to help me figure out why. 

I'll start with the Bible and Shakespeare.

King David
The ruler of Israel plans it all out to cover his own tracks. He'd slept with the wife of a loyal soldier and made her pregnant. The man, Uriah, won't succumb to the enticing offer of a night at home with his wife before a big campaign. So David feels he has no choice but to bump him off. He orders Uriah to be placed at the front of the army in battle, where he'll surely be killed. It was something only a king could arrange, but David's act isn't the discreet manoeuvre he intended. Ironically, what he planned to be secret is known by everyone familiar with the Bible.

The famous Thane of Cawdor can't forget a witches' prophecy that he'll be King of Scotland. He and his wife hatch up a sneaky plot to kill Duncan, the current king, while he visits their castle. Macbeth has many reservations, but caves in to her pressure. Instead of being a trustworthy host, he carries out the plan to intoxicate and frame the guards, and stab Duncan in his sleep. Macbeth learns the hard way that promoting yourself by evil and violence is no way to thrive.

The young prince of Denmark is out for revenge. He suspects that his uncle, King Claudius, murdered his father to become ruler. Hamlet has it straight from the mouth of a spooky figure who claims to be his father's ghost. He puts it to the test by staging a play in which a murder takes place just as the ghost describes, to observe Claudius' reaction. The result is a green light for Hamlet, but his own murder attempts turn pear shaped, starting from the moment he kills the wrong man behind the curtain. It's one of those snowball tragedies in which not many characters are left standing at the end.

The next pair may represent the shortest and longest examples of planning.

The first mate of the Pequod contemplates a moral murder in a flash, when he sees an opportunity set before him. It's common knowledge that Captain Ahab is a maniac who'll probably kill all his crew in a mad attempt to chase the whale Moby Dick. Starbuck notices his sleeping captain's weapon lying unattended, and knows it could be the perfect moment to finish him off and avert disaster. But a lot rolls through his head in those few seconds, including the ethical dilemma of murdering a superior officer, even to save others. Readers are no doubt torn over whether he decided right in the end. (Here's my review of Moby Dick)

This might be the most patient example of contemplating a murder. When Heathcliff was a boy, his (sort of) adopted brother Hindley treated him horribly. Young Heathcliff vows to get him one day. That day comes after they've both grown up. Driving a grieving widower to drink, then winning all his property in card games, then quietly doing him in, is proof that biding your time pays off. It takes a bit of reading between the lines in this example, but Emily Bronte gives her readers broad hints that this is exactly what happened. (Here's my review of Wuthering Heights)

The final trio are among my favourite examples.

Frankenstein's Monster
The lonesome beast is devastated that even his scientist creator rejects him. He relieves his grief by planning to murder everyone dear to Victor Frankenstein, including his brother and best friend. After Victor refuses to make him a female companion, he scares him with the threat, 'I'll be there on your wedding night.' So while Victor's busy arming himself with all sorts of weapons, the monster silently carries out his scheme, and murders Frankenstein's new wife, Elizabeth, with his favourite method, strangling. In a way, he's proven that he has a more crafty mind than the guy who created him.

Draco Malfoy
1The young Slytherin student has a nasty ultimatum from Lord Voldemort. Kill Albus Dumbledore or watch your family die. So Draco drives himself to the verge of illness figuring out how to do it. Voldy doesn't believe he'll succeed, and plans to use Draco's failure to crush the Malfoys. But we readers know not to underestimate Hogwarts school boys, especially desperate ones. After a few failed attempts with a charmed necklace and poisoned bottle, Draco opens a secret passage for the dark side and stands on the astronomy tower with the unarmed headmaster helpless before him. Only then does he realise what Dumbledore knew all along. He's not the sort of person who can commit cold-blooded murder. At the crucial moment, he doesn't have it in him. It's a heartless reader who doesn't feel sorry for Draco all through The Half Blood Prince.

7144Rodion Raskolnikov
This gloomy Russian Uni student believes he's concocted the perfect moral murder. Alyona, a mean old pawn broker, lives a worthless life in his opinion. If he kills her, then uses her wealth to help the poor, it should cancel out the crime, right? Hmm, the grey areas are pretty black, but we're stuck in Rodion's head while he figures out exactly how he'll do it, by distracting her with a false pledge and smashing her head in with an axe. At first he changes his mind a lot, opting out of the deed several times. But we know he'll go ahead with it eventually, and when he does, all we can do is tag along and witness the gruesome scene as we turn the pages. (My review of Crime and Punishment is here.)

So there we have them. It's a strange collection. (Who would expect to find King David and Frankenstein's monster on the same list?) Why do they get all the love, especially considering a huge chunk of their victims are decent and harmless people? I  personally love some from my list more than others, yet I can understand why each of them has earned himself a bit of a following. Maybe it speaks as much good about us readers as it does about these murderous men. On the whole, we must be a pretty understanding and forgiving bunch, especially when we get a glimpse into what makes a person tick. Perhaps it's to our credit, and the way we're designed for our hearts to reach out to others. (Or do you think it's because several of them are just so dashing or cute.)

Are any of your favourites on my list? Or are there others you might add?


  1. (OK, I wrote this big long comment, and then my page refreshed, so I have no idea whether it went through or not - please forgive me if I'm repeating myself! hahaha)

    I'm so glad Raskolnikov made the cut! You had me worried for a minute there, putting him right down at the bottom ;) He was the one that sprung to mind as soon as I saw the title of this post. I also love that you included Starbuck; the more I think about Moby Dick, and the more I read about it, the more my sympathy for him grows, the poor lamb. He really had a rough trot on board the Pequod...

    And your post has got me thinking: is it just me, or are there comparatively very, very few impulsive/heat-of-passion/unmeditated murders in fiction? The only one I can think of really is Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird. Is it because they're harder to write, perhaps? I can see how they'd catch the reader off guard... and yet, surely they're far more common in real life (I say that purely on gut instinct, I haven't looked up any stats). Hmm... thank you for giving my thinking meat something to marinate in (other than our current political crisis! hahaha)

  2. Hi Sheree, yeah, I left Raskolnikov to last because he's fascinating me most right now. I'm just a few chapters off finishing C&P and loving all the psychological stuff. It's the book which gave me the idea for this list.

    Now you mention it, a list of characters who do lose their cool and murder people on the spur of the moment might be more rare indeed. We'll have to brainstorm that. Maybe the premeditators keep the tension flowing more, or something like that.

    And yes, if they'd had personality profiles back in the time of Moby Dick, poor Starbuck might not have been saddled on a boat with Ahab 😉

    Back to see what's going on with political dramas. I'm glad your comment got through after all.

    1. OOOOOH does that mean we'll be getting a full C&P review soon? I'll be publishing mine later in the year (my reviews are scheduled way in advance RN, I have no idea how I got to be so on top of things!), but I'd LOVE to hear your thoughts on it whenever you're ready!! I feel like I've been gushing about C&P to everyone who'll listen, but none of them believe me that it's ACTUALLY good and very readable 😂

    2. Yeah, all the psychological issues and mind games really suck you in, don't they? I read Brothers K last year, and I'm enjoying C&P just as much. It'll take some thought to write a review on such a book, but I'm looking forward to it. The thing that struck me first off though, is that Raskolnikov is such an emo boy from the 19th century, but he had good reason to be, with all that relentless poverty.

      I wish I could keep on top of reviews like you. I used to have about 6 drafts waiting, but not anymore.

  3. Bigger Thomas from Native Son...his first murder is unintentional and his victim is partially culpable, but later, desperation leads to premeditated. I felt bad for Bigger, but still wanted him to face justice. And then there's Clyde from An American Tragedy. Clyde could never get a break, and Dressier does a superb job of luring me into empathy with Clyde...not that I wanted him to go ahead with the murder he planned, but I sure felt bad for the guy.

    Starbuck is one of my favorite characters in lit, even though I'm not a huge fan of Moby Dick.

    1. Hi Joseph, I haven't read either of those, but I should add them to my list, since they have big reputations. And books where murders are planned do draw us in, whatever else. I agree with you about Starbuck and Moby Dick. He was intriguing, maybe because we get such a small glimpse of him over the scope of the book.

  4. I love to read novels and books. I love to read reviews online before download online books. Here I found many books like Rodion Raskolnikov, Draco Malfoy, Heathcliff. I will get ebooks download online and read all the story.