So, Lyn Miller Lachman started a great discussion on my graduate student forum about writing about characters who are victimized, and it really sparked some thoughts I have about the subject that I thought I’d share with you all.
I created this blog to raise awareness in the children’s book community about nasty stuff that happens to kids and to encourage us all to create books specifically for these kids. What that means in practice, though, is that we’re out there writing books about kids who are being beaten, raped, molested, abused, neglected, starved, unloved, bullied, etc. . . . These kids are victims. They are victims of their parents or families or peers or of society or of random cruelty or hate crimes or war or any number of things that aren’t their fault ultimately.
And yet, in order to create a book that people will want to read, we need most of our characters to be people that readers can identify with, root for, and feel sympathy for.
Which brings us to the question of whether our characters should feel sorry for themselves? Whiny characters who feel sorry for themselves feel claustrophobic in the reading. And you don’t have to expend your sympathy on them because they already feel sorry for themselves. But you would think that most kids who have gone through these horrible things really would spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves. And as an honest and conscientious writer, you would want to honestly portray their emotions.
But if you’re writing a character who is a victim, ask yourself: Would my character really feel sorry for herself? The answer might actually be “no.” Here’s why: If your character has suffered any sort of extensive and long-lasting abuse, and if she still has any hope of coming out OK on the other side, then she is probably extremely resilient. And resilient people spend less time feeling sorry for themselves than you’d think. Because they spend their time coming up with plans to take control, be OK, overcome. And while they might spend some time feeling sorry for themselves in actuality, that isn’t the part of them that is going to make their situation better. So it’s not as relevant to a character’s journey in a book. Annakey Rainsayer in Martine Leavitt’s wonderful book The Dollmage and Briony Larkin in Franny Billingsley’s also wonderful book Chime (which I reviewed a few months ago) are two of my favorite characters who demonstrate this principle. Briony and Annakey are both victims of gross, years-long abuse and neglect. But they don’t feel sorry for themselves and they are both constantly doing things to both make their lives better and to make the lives of others better–empathy is another common characteristic of an abused but resilient child.
But if your character has been the victim of extensive, long-lasting abuse and she has been broken by it, then she would feel sorry for herself. But unfortunately, she is probably never going to get out of it, either. And if you’re writing these books to let kids know that there is hope and they can be OK. Or to let them know even what they can expect from life afterwards or any number of reasons, then you probably don’t want to write a book where the character has given up.
There are books, however, where the abuse is not long-term and extensive. In the case of books about rape, for instance. These characters have not needed to previously develop resilience in order to survive their life circumstances. I’m thinking about Speak by Lauri Halse Anderson. I’ve seen a few others that I can’t remember off the top of my head, but what I noticed that they had in common was that in these cases, the characters don’t solve their problem. There is almost always an ally who helps them–in Speak it’s her art teacher, and she heals by making art. I suspect this MC does, in fact, feel sorry for herself. And I suspect Anderson just doesn’t play it up, again, because it would feel claustrophobic on the page.
In Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, another book that I love, I suspect, again, that Liga does feel sorry for herself–she’s the victim of years of incest and then gang rape. Again, it’s not really there on the page, because it’s tough to read, but I think the character probably does feel it. But Liga doesn’t ever overcome her situation. Margo Lanagan, in a talk at VCFA, said that she really tried to give Liga a happy ending, but it just wouldn’t work out. And I suspect that’s because Liga does give up. She doesn’t just give up, she robs her two daughters of their chance to grow up in the real world at all–which qualifies as a sort of abuse in itself. The reason this works fictively is that after the first hundred pages or so, the story is no longer really Liga’s at all. It’s her daughters. And her daughters have the resilience that Liga doesn’t. So they burst a hole in the fantasy land that Liga has trapped them in, and they avenge their mother.
Another interesting example, which I haven’t read, is Going Bovine by Libba Bray. Lyn brought up this one in our conversation. I guess the character spends the first third of the book feeling sorry for himself and then is diagnosed with cancer? I am wondering if the story arc of this book is that this event forces the character to develop resiliency? One of my all-time favorite books (that I almost put down in the first twenty pages because the character was so whiny and felt so sorry for himself) is Whirligigs by Paul Fleischman. SPOILER ALERT: He gets in a car accident (because he was drunk driving) and he kills the young woman who was driving the other car. His punishment is that he has to go all over the country putting up whirligigs to inspire people and to commemorate the girl he killed. Through the course of the story he finds himself, stops feeling sorry for himself, and develops empathy and resiliency.
So, take home messages: 1) resilient characters won’t stand around feeling sorry for themselves, instead they will solve their problems. 2) Abused characters who have given up will feel sorry for themselves, but they won’t be able to solve their problems. 3) If your character doesn’t have the resiliency to solve her problems, she will need an ally. 4) If no one is going to solve the problem, then you either don’t have a story, or your story is really about someone else. 5) Or the book could be about how the adversity forces her to develop resiliency.
And for a bonus, some of my other favorite resilient characters:
- Kit Tyler from The Witch of Blackbird Pond
- Galadriel Hopkins from The Great Gilly Hopkins
- Aerin, dragon-killer, from The Hero and the Crown
- Louise from Jacob Have I Loved