He can be a true pacifist and choose not to fight.
Let me be very clear, fighting is a choice. No matter what those reasons are, even when they’re good ones, it is still a choice. There is no such thing as “have to”. It’s “choose to”.
One of my favorite quotes from Babylon 5 episode Point of No Return,
“There is always choice. We say there is no choice only to comfort ourselves
with the decision we have already made. If you understand that, there’s
hope. If not…” – Lady Morella
When you say, “my character is a pacifist but he has decided to fight” then what you’re essentially saying is that, “My character is a pacifist, he believes in peace and non-violent solutions, but only when it’s easy to be one”.
Being a pacifist isn’t easy, it is actually very difficult because it requires using your words, to attempt to deescalate situations, and not fight even when it looks like you’ll probably die. It’s hard to believe in the best of other people, especially when those people want to kill you.
There’s a difference between a character who says, “I won’t fight under any circumstances because I believe violence only begets more violence.” And the character who says, “I don’t fight anymore, but I will if you press me.”
One of these is a pacifist and it’s the former.
See, the thing about pacifism is that it’s a belief system. One that says all violence is unjustifiable, this includes war and, in some cases, even self-defense. You don’t fight because fighting only creates more violence. Disputes must be settled by peaceful means with non-violent solutions. It means refusing to fight, even when you’re being forced to. In some cases dying to defend that ideal.
I’d think long and hard about whether or not you want this character to be a pacifist because writing one is exceedingly difficult. Look at the situation you just posited, a situation crops up where this ex-assassin has to fight in order to defend. You’re attempting to justify him taking a violent action in defense of someone else, like that makes it okay. However, because pacifism is a belief system or an ethical/moral stance, this is him breaking with his belief system and compromising his ideals.
Pacifism isn’t about not killing. It’s about no violence.
Whether someone dies or not, the violent action itself is the root cause of more violence. Cliche as it is on the surface, your assassin has been in the perfect position to see the effects of violence up close and personal. Violent individuals isn’t something we are, but it predicates on the idea that it’s what we become. Someone who has been bullied is more likely to be bully in turn. A victim of abuse, whether emotional or physical, will often become an abuser and are more likely to than someone who never experienced that violence. The longer and more persistent the experience, the more likely it becomes. This expands to large scale conflicts too. Where a country or civilization that is victimized by violence will turn around and revenge themselves in yet another war.
We can dance back and forth like angels on a pinhead about what violence really means and you’ll find martial arts like Aikido that do split the hair about when is it okay to fight. The entire point behind codes of honor like Chivalry, Bushido, and others is about deciding when violence is socially acceptable and when it is not, about who should be hurt, and who is fair game. It’s a code of behavior that defines how one should interact with the world.
This is why Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin is not a pacifist, he’s someone who refuses to kill. He’s trying to be, but he will fight to defend himself and fight to defend his friends. He believes that situations should be solved primarily without violence, but will still fight if pressed or to uphold the law. What he’s refusing to be, technically, is a vigilante. He’s refusing to take the law into his own hands or determine who has the right to live and who should die. He’s not a pacifist.
When faced with a situation where they need to defend someone else, the pacifist may interject themselves and use their own body as a shield. They may allow themselves to be beaten up, even though they could fight back. It is the Jesus “turn the other cheek” line.
Pacifism is a concept mocked by the culture at large because not fighting is vastly more difficult than fighting. Because to someone who sees violence as the way of strength, the one who follows the path of peace just looks weak to them.
You should also be careful with pacifism. While the assassin/soldier/blood soaked veteran redemption arc is a powerful one, it’s also one of those great cliches seen everywhere in literature. True redemption arcs don’t work when you woobify a character and attempt to depreciate what they’ve done by saying it wasn’t their fault. It deprives them of their agency, their ability to see their path was wrong and choose to change even though it goes against everything they were taught to believe.
Changing your path only has meaning when you were a believer, when you chose to do what you were doing in the first place.
And a child who has been raised as an assassin, left their compound, and worked as one out in the world for any period of time? They’re a believer.
If they weren’t, then the people who raised and trained them would never let them go.
An assassin is not like a soldier, where they thrust you out into a hectic environment with twenty other guys and say: “go! Kill!”, where it’s hectic and terrifying with guns going off every which way. Where you’re so scared that you’re working on the instincts they trained into you so that you’re not even thinking when you see an enemy moving in the bushes, point your gun, pull the trigger, and end up shooting a small child.
It’s best to think of an assassin as a stalker because, in a lot of ways, they are. The assassin knows their target, does their prep, follows the guy or girl or child to get a beat on their personal habits and where they go to find the exact precise moment where there’s a weakness or hole in their security. Sometimes, there’s a specific way in which the target needs to die or a specific place where their death can make the most impact. The assassin has ample time to think about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what it’s going to affect.
You’re writing a character who has potentially, quite literally, stood in someone’s kitchen in the middle of the night while their target, their husband/wife, and their children are all upstairs slumbering away. All the while he’s going through their possessions and their trash in order to get a better sense for who this person is with no intention to kill them that night. He’s just there for prep and to get a working layout of their house.
This is someone who has been trained to work alone, be self-sufficient, and who has the skill set to simply ghost off into the long good night. They’d be running for the rest of their life, but they were also never on the grid to begin with.
They can go if they want and it’ll be difficult as hell to track them down.
The assassin can’t work in the world if they don’t understand it, much like the spy, their job is heavily reliant on being able to both blend in and manipulate people into giving them information. It’s more complicated than just show up, point, and click. They need come in with a plan and with a way to extricate themselves from the situation.
We’re talking about someone who is very organized and highly disciplined. The successful ones are anyway.
This isn’t a job that can be done because you “have to” or someone “made me do it” or “it’s all I know”. Those are ultimately just convenient excuses that serve to shift the blame away from the character. There was a level for this character where they did enjoy it, where they believed in it or in the people they worked for,
What makes an Atoner work and the subsequent redemption arc that follows is them owning their guilt. They don’t pass it off onto anyone else. They stand by their beliefs. They have conviction, and they acknowledge that they weren’t a good person. They’re still not.
They’re trying to be.
That’s where the tension is.
It’s what makes an Atoner compelling as a character. The belief that we can ultimately become better is what makes redemption arcs compelling. We can be forgiven. We can become worthy of forgiveness.
The Assassin can lie all they like, about themselves, about who they were, about what they did, they can try to mitigate their own responsibility, and run away from it, but ultimately for a redemption arc to work then they have to stand.
Talking it out is more dangerous and more difficult for someone who has been trained for violence to be their first response. It’s where they want to go first. It’s their primary means of problem solving when they or anyone they are about is really in danger. They’ve got to choke it down. Go against everything they’ve been raised to believe, raised to do, trained to react.
For an actual pacifist, violence represents a complete and utter failure to resolve the situation. For him, fighting is a failure.
It’s him returning to what he knows and there is no nice way to do that. No convenient way, other for him to fight against what he’s been trained to be.
He’s trapped between two starkly opposing opposites, possibly without the communication skills or emotional understanding to really get across what he wants.
One of the main problem with the whole “raised to be an assassin and kill” trope in literature is that many writers often use it as an easy out for their characters. “They don’t know any better”. “They were taught to be this”. “It’s not their fault”. This ultimately robs a character of their agency and when you rob them of that, then the entire plotline ends up a cliche. More than that, their choice to change has no meaning because a character without agency has no choice. They turn to pacifism because it’s “the right thing to do” and utilizes the writer’s morals/way of seeing the world as the default. All they had to do was be exposed to it and they flipped.
Except, a child who has been raised to be an assassin is one that has been prepared by their society for the world that they’ll encounter outside their compound. What they were taught to believe inside their compound is their definition of normal, their values, their ethics, and their morals.
The world outside isn’t some strange or alien environment that they don’t know how to deal with. They aren’t emotionally stunted. They can interact with other “normal” people because they have to and they’ve been trained to.
Someone who gets taken by their parents to a stranger’s house in the middle of the day while their at work, taught how to break in, go through their things, search their particulars, and leave without a trace isn’t someone who has the same morals and ethics as someone who grew up in a “normal” nuclear family in the suburbs with two cars, a white picket fence, and a dog.
He may actually look at that idea and want that, because the greater surrounding society when he chooses to embrace it says you should want that. He might embrace that in the same way he embraces pacifism because he doesn’t know how to not live in extremes or choose what he wants for himself.
If this character really is turning to pacifism, then that will actually be a constant struggle that may last most of his life. He’ll be fighting his own instincts, and everything he’s been trained to do. Pretending to be a pacifist will be easy, lying to others and even himself because that comes naturally. He’s been trained for that. He’s been pretending for most of his life.
Actually being one will be difficult.
Again, it’s a stark contrast. Not only is it against everything he’s been trained to believe but it’s the polar opposite. Pacifism is weakness, not strength. It is a hard switch to the other end of the spectrum.
Try not to remember that there’s no such thing as “have to”. It’s always “choose to”. Even when your life is in danger, it’s a deciding action. It’s a choice.
What makes redemption stories powerful is that they’re also about choice. Choosing to change is difficult, realizing we were wrong is difficult, stepping back and looking at the situation in a new way is difficult.