Saint Flaherty Series · Writing

If You Give a Boy a Gun: The Psychology of Violence, Up Close

Image courtesy of Pixabay user kerttu, public domain


Everyone who has been around violence in an intimate way will tell you this: not everyone can kill. And so in my book What Boys Are Made Of, I decided to ask what would happen if you took someone who couldn’t, and made their first kill both deliberate and a complete accident.

Cue chapter one, in which Simon smashes someone’s head in with a baseball bat because he has no idea how hard he can swing. It’s self-defense, but it’s also manslaughter, and thus, a killer is born.

I wrote that scene five years ago. I knew it worked when I wrote it, but let’s fast forward to when I learned why.

About a month ago, I picked up a book on writing. I’m not really one to do that because frankly I find them dull. This one was different, though, because it wasn’t about sentences or plots, no. It was about how to write violence, and it was written by a violent man. Violence, a Writer’s Guide, by Rory Miller.

And it was utterly fascinating.

Now, whether you go on to read this book or not, I think everyone can benefit by knowing there are six levels of people, divided like this:

1 Regular people. They do not use force or violence, verbally or physically.

2 Manipulative people. They bully and pit people against each other. They do not disrupt things. Not physical.

3 Assertive people. They stop manipulators by taking charge and not being afraid to back their words with authority or policy. Not physical.

4 Aggressive people. They will disrupt things by screaming, yelling, barging into rooms, and testing boundaries. Not physically violent with people.

5 Assaultive people. They will resort to physical violence and force to get their way. They do not kill.

6 Murderous. They will kill to get their way.

Each rank trumps the one below it. Most people have a lot of trouble jumping more than a rank or two. Jumping more than one takes serious, extreme changes. Once you’ve climbed a rank, you can’t go lower. You can act lower, but the fact is, if you’ve done something, you can do it again. The power is there.

Now, Miller does a great job of going into more about these ranks, but I want you to stop and take a look at this chart, then remember chapter one of my book.

Simon, page one, is about to fight. That immediately makes us think he’s an assaultive person. In fact, most people who know Simon would call him assaultive. Even Art, his coach, would.

This is incorrect. Simon, the day we meet him, is assertive. Nothing more. Nothing less. Fighting has rules, and follows them; the fight itself is not about violence, but skill.

The moment he kills his nameless opponent, though, in the eyes of everyone around him, he jumps rank. The rest of the book is spent playing catch-up not because he wants to, but because if he doesn’t? He won’t survive.

Seriously, get out your copy of the book, it’s all there. Simon starts as assertive. Chapter 3, Art manages to provoke him into a violent response, but they are in a place designed for violence, and Art is someone Simon feels pretty safe in not being able to beat. Their fight is still just the equivalent of using the policies in place to make a point.

But Art is trying to provoke a violent response, and believes he should be getting one.

Art takes Simon to see Mick, and Mick manages to notice the discrepancy between Simon’s image and his reality. You’ll notice, it’s always Mick who tells Simon he has to be more violent. It’s Mick who recognizes that Simon’s in danger. This is why every time you seem them together, Mick is explaining another reason why Simon must jump levels, and now, because when people think you to be a certain level, they will up the tactics they use on you.

While you could argue that Simon’s first level jump is in chapter 18, when Simon breaks the baseball bat to make a point to Art, I’m going to say that is just another extension of policy reliance. To me, the first jump is in chapter 23, when he puts his fist through a kitchen cabinet. That is an aggressive move. He didn’t hurt Erin—but he demonstrated that he could.

Keep in mind that Erin herself has killed. Erin is comfortable using assaultive tactics, as we saw between her and Art in the Market. In fact, every adult character we meet, we can assume has, at some point, operated on a murderous or at least assaultive level. They’ve drifted back down to what they’re more comfortable with, but just as it’s hard to go up, it’s hard to go down. The regular level is all but lost.

The next day is when Taylor’s interrogation scene takes place. Simon has a knife and an easy victim, and he has his first realization that he has killed before and he can kill again. He does not jump levels, but Mick spots that Simon has realized he can.

Action trails off for a couple of days as life persists, Simon getting comfortable on his new level. But something has changed. We have some indication that Simon is experimenting with violence outside of prescribed rules with the incident of an attack by TJ Katowski, mentioned in passing in chapter 36. Simon held the man underwater until he stopped fighting back.

For those that don’t know much about drowning, Simon almost killed him. It was self-defense, and we can argue Simon was using ring rules—go until you can’t, but there’s a dark tinge.

And that’s the last of Simon’s level jumping. We wait for him to do, but he doesn’t. Other people do instead.

Namely, Taylor.

Taylor is, well. He’s the character people tell me is a “dumbass,” the one they get annoyed at because he’s so weak and petty and a loser jerk. But by the end, he learns the terrible lesson that so long as the bad guys don’t view you as human, you’ll never be safe. And when he learns that lesson, he goes to murderous.

He doesn’t just kill Art; he kills Chris Hopkins, the bookie who got in trouble with Petrowski. Taylor kills those two, then puts a bullet through Petrowski, and none of those shots were in self-defense. No, Taylor did it because they were the right thing to do, in his eyes.

He also did it because he finally was in an environment that wouldn’t penalize him for those actions.

So Taylor is a person who mostly operates as aggressive, but whom I would argue is actually assaultive. What keeps him from using violence as a weapon is, as we see, that he believes others around him to be stronger. Simon beat him in a fight, so Taylor won’t cause trouble for him. Petrowski is the big man in town, so Taylor toes the line. But as soon as he has a blessing and a clear shot? He happily transitions. Taylor is the definition of a coward.

Grace also makes a jump, but her journey is a little more nuanced. She easily copes with working with Erin, which argues that Grace is probably an aggressive person at her highest rank, but mostly she operates as assertive. When she kills Ryan, though, she makes a very quick transition to murderous.

It almost undoes her.

People who’ve been around violence say that’s how you find out who you really are, and for Grace, this is true. She has found out that she is a person capable of murder to defend herself, and at first, she resists. Unlike Taylor, she doesn’t have the back-patting reassurance that her gender is just made that way. She finds different reassurance, in her religion, and decides she is doing God’s work. This allows her to “other” Petrowski and kill him without remorse.

Whether she will continue at a murderous level or her assurance will waver, we don’t see. I’d bet it doesn’t. Grace has found a way to never be afraid again.

So has Taylor, but of the two of them, I’d be far warier of the latter. She does what she must. He does what he can.

Cue book 2. Book 2 is deceptive.

We meet Simon, and it seems like not much has changed. He’s still a fighter, he’s still his assertive self. Yeah, he’s gotten a lot more self-assured, but hey, doesn’t everybody when growing up? The reader assumes Simon is still where he was when we last saw him. In fact, we’re lulled into thinking he’s a bit nicer.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Remember, once you go up a level, you can’t come back down, you can only act it. Simon’s already gone up to at least aggressive, so we already know he’s faking assertive. The question becomes, what level is he hiding?

Actually, that’s the question a regular person asks. Someone who’s been around violence knows exactly what level Simon’s at the moment he walks in carrying a gun with authority. Not just a gun, a holstered, concealed gun, probably two. And he has multiple ways to carry and he carries them without any indication that he’d ever not carry them, because Simon is the sort who sleeps with one eye open. We have multiple indications early on that Simon is more than he now seems, from the way he handles Fiona’s gun to his reaction when she startles him awake.

But let’s go with the regular reader perspective. After all, Fiona carries a gun, doesn’t she? Lots of characters have guns. Simon gives Nisha a gun!

Let’s grab that thought.

Nisha tells Simon she’s in danger, and Simon’s response is to give her a gun. Why? Because he knows that Nisha is dealing with murderous people. And as Simon himself is a murderous person, he understands that the best and only way to deal with them is with the only force they understand.

Nisha, an assertive person at best, never stood a chance. She was dead the moment she began to be a threat to Sanjay. Those girls of his who moved away so abruptly? There’s a darker story there than we’ll ever know. Nobody jumps more than a couple of levels at once. Sanjay might have kept up a nice face for his wife, but that doesn’t mean he had one everywhere. Nisha’s instinct to fear for her children was correct in every way. Where she went wrong was not fearing for herself.

Really, Fiona has the right of it when it came to the violent characters, in judging them. Simon has no problem beating Carter Owens to a pulp. She terms her neighbor a monster, but really she just means murderous. Getting away from him was the smartest thing she ever did, because Fiona carries a gun she can’t use. What she shouts about not being able to aim so she might hit anything is the absolute truth. Hoatson’s thugs don’t put their hands up because they fear she’ll try to shoot them. They do it because Hoatson is about to be speared by a madman.

Which brings us to Connor. Ah, Connor.

When we meet him, in book 1, Connor operates at aggressive, which is why he can trump Simon in most situations. He’s loud-mouthed, he’s rude, and he’s not afraid to grab Erin if he feels like it. Assaultive, then?

No. Connor has killed in self-defense twice. He’s tried more times than that. In What Boys Are Made Of, he’s tasked with doing it again—to Simon.

And fails, utterly, even though, as we learn later, if Connor had killed Simon that night, he would have had everything to gain.

If Simon is a murderer who acts like an assertive person, Connor is an aggressive person who occasionally acts like a murderer. Simon is perfectly capable of and comfortable with beating up a defenseless person. Connor can only kill in defense. It’s a basic difference, and a crucial one. Simon doesn’t threaten violence, he just does it. Connor threatens, but does not back up those threats. His only violence once he gets out of Buchell is self-defense. Those who hurt him implicitly understand that. So does Simon.

In fact, of any character in the books, I’d say Simon is the best at grasping what level people are at. All the bosses can do that, and Simon is, if nothing else, a leader. Connor can rule through law. Simon can just rule. He will do what it takes, whatever it takes, to help those whose protection he sees as his job.

That should not be a comfort.

I’m going to jump out of my books for a moment here and ask if any of you have read Terry Pratchett’s city guard books. That is, those books that center on Samuel Vimes, head of the Ankh-Morpork’s police force. I want us to look at the character Carrot.

Carrot is a great character. He’s big, strong, and deceptively simple. And Carrot has no problem with killing those who are bad. He does not do so gladly, but because it must be done. Same with issuing beatings or tricking information out of people. Most people see him and think he’s sweet, which he is, except that he isn’t.

Carrot is murderous.

Pratchett glosses over it a lot, but as Commander Vimes knows well, Carrot should not be in charge, because Carrot believes his duty is to stop wrong-doers, and he’s a good man who is willing to kill to do so. And that’s dangerous, oh so dangerous because police don’t stop wrong-doers, they keep the peace, and that’s not the same thing at all. Carrot should never be given final authority.

If Carrot is sounding like one of my characters, you’re right. I didn’t set out to make a more “real” version of Carrot, but I can’t be sad if you agree that I did.

And now look where book 2 just ended: Carrot, I mean, Simon got power. Lots of power. Power over place and people.

If you’re beginning to think that’s a bad idea, you’re not alone.

And so now you see the set-up that has gone into this series.

But wait, you say, didn’t I only learn this stuff in July?

I learned the names for it in July, but it’s been there all along. There’s a lot of things that have been. Believe me, book 3, whenever it’s out, will be the one that sends you into a frantic re-read to see if things were really there all along.

They were.

If you’re a writer or just someone who enjoys knowing the psychology behind certain media, I suggest trying this book. While there’s a couple of eye-rolling moments regarding the author’s opinion of gender, mostly I found it to be eye-opening and very interesting.


I’m S. Hunter Nisbet, writer of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels of the dark and gritty type. Which you’d probably already guessed, considering the article above.


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