It’s a proven fact that a percentage of soldiers, even though they’ve trained and drilled for days or weeks or months, cannot pull the trigger when ordered. Some entirely human part of their minds and their emotions refuses to do it. To take a life. All the reflexes are there. They’ve got no problem on the range. But when it comes time to put a man in their sights, they cannot will themselves to squeeze that trigger.
It’s also been proven that people respond with greater anger and horror at the killing and maiming of animals, versus human beings. Photography of the U.S. Civil War and World War One shocked the American public not because of dead men, but because of dead horses. Most of us empathize with these creatures much more readily and cleanly, compared to people. Because animals retain something of a noble innocence. It’s not their war. Yet there they are, getting slaughtered right along with the men. And while a man might have sins enough to account for his untimely passing, of what sin might a dog or a cat be guilty?
And how often does it take — killing such helpless creatures — before you’re hardened to it?
Episode 4 of HBO’s landmark disaster drama Chernobyl takes us into the world of the troops tasked with clearing the no-mans-land surrounding the ruined reactor, as well as the mission of the liquidators who have to go where not even machines can survive. In each instance we see men — boys, really — thrown against their instincts, and forced to do some of the most terrible and dangerous work imaginable. In the case of the former, it’s gut-wrenching block-by-block murder of former pets and livestock, all declared contaminated since the reactor released untold amounts of radioactive material onto the nearby city, as well as the countryside. In the case of the latter its a raw, frenetic 90-second adventure on the scorched roof of the reactor proper, hoping to heave just a few more kilograms of obliterated reactor core material back into the pit of the core.
The worlds of your stories — past, present, future, alternate — may also have need of such men and women. People who can make themselves go do what must be done, no matter how hazardous nor stomach-churning that work may be. What kinds of climactic events could precipitate the need? What calamities both natural and artificial may conspire to force ordinary people to put themselves through hell? Can they be compelled to it by force? Threats? What about appealing to their sense of patriotism and duty? Their cultural sense that the whole really is more important than the parts? In Episode 3 of Chernobyl we see Stellan Skarsgard’s characters deliver a rather impassioned speech to the Chernobyl plant workers, appealing for volunteers on the basis that Russians have suffered for a thousand years, each generation having its portion of woe and punishment. A man can do almost anything if he believes he must do it to live up to the example of his fathers before him, and his grandfathers, and great-grandfathers.
But what’s the cost? To the ordinary people living in the midst of the battle? People who never had any quarrel with the powers of the land, but who find themselves ordered at the tip of a sword or the point of a bayonet or the muzzle of a gun to pick up and leave? A lot of stories — especially science fiction and fantasy stories — focus on great wars and great conflicts raging across continents or planets or whole solar systems and galaxies. There will be folks caught in the middle of that madness. Who aren’t necessarily for one side any more than they’re against the other. But they’re caught in the teeth of it, now. Your storytelling can intensify its emotional reach by ensuring these souls are not forgotten. Because these poor individuals are the ones most like you and me, and also your readers. Ordinary people stuck on the horns of a seemingly impossible predicament.
Can magic or technology save them? Magic and technology without limits will diminish or destroy the suspense. Magic and technology with limits, enriches your story dramatically. Because the blood and sweat of people — human, or alien — will have to fill in the gaps. And even then, there may not be a truly clean and proper final resolution. Some wars leave wounds which can never heal. How will your imagined culture(s) react to seeing whole cities, counties, nations, or even worlds, made uninhabitable? Is the fuel from a starship disintegrating upon reentry going to poison the ocean over which the wreckage plummets? Does a supreme incantation designed to strike down whole armies also render formerly forested and farmed lands into barren, lifeless wastes?
Every decision your generals or admirals, your kings and princes, make, is going to have a cost. And the people paying the price might be down at the bottom of society. They might not know about nor care for the so-called Big Picture. All they understand is they’re being exposed to danger, being asked to fight or die, because somebody with a crown on his head or medals on his chest is telling them to do it. The man on the ground might feel like it’s futile. He might not give a f**k about the higher concerns of important people who will themselves never have to get dirt beneath their trimmed fingernails.
Tension between levels of society and authority will enrich your stories just like placing limits on science and sorcery. All societies have these levels. How do yours shake out? Are they relatable to the castes and classes of current and past cultures we know from history? Or are there other things — unique to your worlds — which differentiate one person (or one being) from another? How willing are the folks at your bottom going to be, to pay the costs incurred by decisions made at your top? Does your leadership ever have to suffer for being wrong? (cough, currently staring at our State Department, our White House, and our Joint Chiefs as I write this, cough.)
Answers to all of these questions — and the implications of same — are going to define the central struggle(s) with which your character(s) must grapple.