Doing bad things to imaginary lives.
A little while ago, I killed off a character. Maybe. Probably. Hard to say what’s real and what’s not, but that’s beside the point. At the moment that I was writing it, he was dead, dead, deadski, regardless of what might or might not happen later. And I didn’t feel bad about it at all.
I also completely traumatized another character. Just really messed up her head in a seriously bad way. I didn’t feel bad about that, either.
But when it came to killing a horse in a video game, I lost my shit.
I don’t know why I’m obsessing about this today. It happened way back when Red Dead Redemption 2 first came out. A little ways into the game, you unlock stables where you can save a few horses, but a couple of my stalls were already occupied by mounts that came with the preorder bonuses. Eventually, I decided that I didn’t want to keep either of them — I wanted to free up that space for other horses that I found along the way, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them leave. I Googled it, but at the time, all I found were other people asking the same damn question, and no one had any good answers yet.
Well, there was one answer: kill off the ones you don’t want.
That thought was so disturbing that I just gave up for a little while. I couldn’t save any more horses, and that was too bad, but if the only alternative was to kill them, then too bad for me.
Then I found one that I really loved, and I finally decided to do it. I would become a fictional-horse murderer.
The quickest, easiest way would obviously be to put a bullet in their heads, but I was too freaking squeamish. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look them in the eye and just shoot them. I couldn’t watch them die. So I came up with a horrible, terrible, cowardly plan.
I decided that the easiest way would be to ride one of them out to the train tracks in the middle of nowhere and leave him there. Eventually, a train would come along, and that would be that. I wouldn’t see it happen, and after a little while, there wouldn’t be any evidence.
The problem with the middle of nowhere is that it’s the middle of nowhere, and that could lead to a very, very long walk back to someplace that wasn’t nowhere. Now laziness was warring with squeamishness. I thought to hell with it, that’s my punishment for doing such a dastardly thing. If I have to walk, I have to walk. So I rode one of them out to the middle of nowhere, stopped on the train tracks, and dismounted. And then I walked away. And then I stopped and watched to see if he’d wander off the tracks, making this whole effort pointless. He didn’t. Ok, good. Well, not good, but at least it’ll be over soon.
Then I started to walk away, but before I got very far, I heard a train coming. I immediately freaked out, because I was still close enough to hear it when it happened. I panicked, ran like hell to the tracks, jumped on his back, and rode away.
This wasn’t working.
Ok, new plan. Well, the same plan, but now I knew that I needed to get away from there fast, in case a train came along too quickly. So I rode to a town and scouted out a spot that I thought might work. It was far enough outside of the town limits to make me feel like nobody was going to see me doing it (because I didn’t want a bunch of fictional NPCs to witness my dirty deed), but close enough to sprint to a street, where I could presumably acquire (a.k.a. steal) another horse temporarily. Just long enough to get out of sight and hearing distance of the crime scene, anyway. This would work.
I left him on the tracks and sprinted away, but then… I don’t know. I couldn’t just go. So I ran back to the tracks and then followed them further away. I wouldn’t see or hear it when it happened, but I’d see the next train when it came through, and I’d know that it was done. I didn’t feel good about it, but knowing that it was over seemed like a good idea. So I waited.
I really should have been paying attention to the train schedules, I guess, but it was taking so long that I started wondering if the game itself was rebelling against my terrible, horrible plan. Maybe it saw what I was doing and decided that the trains would stop running. Which was incredibly stupid, and I knew that, but I was so paranoid at that point that anything felt plausible. Suddenly, I couldn’t do it. I ran all the way back, and there was my horse. Just standing there. Bored. So I climbed up and rode away, because I just couldn’t do it.
Then I spent some time calling myself names. I was an idiot. I was being stupid. It was a game. It didn’t matter. By this point in my career, I’d killed millions of things in games. People, animals, whatever. And here I was, spending hours trying — and failing — to kill one horse.
I talked myself into trying one last time. Shamed myself into it, really. So I went back to the same spot, left him behind, and ran away down the tracks. I’d given up the idea of just leaving the area, because now I needed to know when it was over. I’d go down the tracks, like before, listen to the sounds of the city, and just wait until I saw another train come through.
So I waited.
And then I freaked out again, decided that I couldn’t do this again, and ran back to get him.
Except this time, the train was finally coming. And I realized that I wasn’t going to get there in time, and I was too close, so I panicked and tried to run away, but I couldn’t move fast enough, and I heard everything.
It was awful.
After that, I swore I’d never do it again.
And I didn’t have to, because the next time I Googled it, someone had pointed out an easy, death-free way to turn a horse loose and free up the stall space. Which, naturally, made me feel like even more of a monster.
Killing off (or breaking) my own fictional characters doesn’t usually bother me. That’s just the way the story goes. But no matter what horrible things I might do to the people, you’ll probably never have to worry about any friendly animals dying in any of my books. I don’t think I could take it. I certainly can’t go through something like this again.