Victim Characters and Passivity

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
Those are off the top of my head. Please feel free to chime in with others and with your thoughts.

About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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10 Responses to Victim Characters and Passivity

  1. Thank you for writing this post. I’m glad my piece on victims and underdogs struck a chord, and I like your analysis of the alternatives writers have in terms of portraying victims of violence or unfair circumstances. In the case of Going Bovine, the main character has contracted mad cow disease. His escape from the hospital is the moment he stops feeling sorry for himself, because he goes out in search of what he knows he’s going to lose–which is life. It’s not resiliency per se but having a desire and going after it rather than giving it up without a fight.

    I also appreciate your acknowledgement that many people who suffer abuse or trauma are broken by it, and even if we’re unlikely to sympathize with those characters or their real-life counterparts, there are ways of creating connections. It’s an important thing to do so that we don’t write off our society’s most vulnerable. Allies who serve as the protagonists of our stories become models of what we can do in real life to reach out. That’s what I tried to do in portraying my protagonist in Gringolandia. Daniel struggles with his guilt for what he sees as his role in his father’s arrest, but when his father returns, broken after years of torture in Pinochet’s prisons, Daniel struggles even more with his fear that his father is beyond hope or help, and by trying to build a relationship he will only drag himself down. Daniel’s own resilience informs his choice and highlight both the risks and the importance of being an ally.

    • pamwatts says:

      Thanks for sparking the discussion, Lyn. (I hope it’s OK I brought it over here, because I thought it might be helpful to others!) I definitely agree with your points. And this is something I’ve struggled with for awhile. In one of the novels I’m working on, the character has Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be known as Multiple Personalities. She’s developed it as a coping mechanism to deal with incest. But writers always seem to say that your character needs to solve her own problem. And yet, if your character is broken to such an extent that she really CAN’T solve her own problem, then if she’s going to survive, she needs help. I’ve decided that she needs some resiliency in order to finally make the jump to want to survive herself, but without an ally she’s never going to get there. I think the role of allies in life as well as in fiction is often really downplayed–is it an American thing? Because we all feel like we ought to be able to go it alone? But the reality is that most kids who get out of bad situations before reaching adulthood–so, if the abuse is life-threatening, these would be the only ones who survive–probably do so because someone goes to bat for them.

  2. Kathy Quimby says:

    Another thoughtful, thought-provoking post. Having read most of the books you mention (although Witch of Blackbird Pond was so very long ago I don’t remember anything more than re-reading it at regular intervals), I wonder how much of resiliency vs needing/finding an ally vs being unable to escape a situation doesn’t come from basic personalities. And, I think at some point, no matter how resilient we are, we need an ally or two, allies who prove themselves to be trustworthy.

    I’d add to your list Jason, in Han Nolan’s Crazy. His father is abusive (because his father is schizophrenic) but Jason is so busy trying to keep them both alive that he doesn’t dwell on anything but getting through the present moment. Part of what Jason has to do is accept that, resilient and resourcesful as he is, he can’t do it all by himself.

    • pamwatts says:

      I agree, Kathy. And I’m glad to hear about Crazy. I love Dancing on the Edge by Han Nolan. And while that MC is not necessarily resilient (I mean, she really is in a way), but she’s a great example of someone who uses allies to get better–she winds up in a hospital after she self-destructs because she has been lied to about herself for so long.

  3. Sarah Tuttle says:

    You raise some really good points… there is a difference between characters having a bad moment/day that they are capable of snapping themselves out of, and characters who have internalized the idea that they are victims and that’s all they’ll ever be. Every character is allowed to have those “down moments,” because they are real. But it is so important that, if the book is to be a hopeful one, the “down moments” are balanced with the discovery of coping mechanisms. In fact, discovering how to use those coping mechanisms effectively can be a character arc in itself.

  4. pamwatts says:

    I definitely agree! 🙂

  5. Pam, This post – like so many of yours – is fascinating. I agree with Lyn on GOING BOVINE, and even put it on the “Must-Read” list on my website because it’s such a crazy and imaginative read. But I wouldn’t say that it belongs on an overcoming-victimization list.

    Right now I’m re-reading THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES in which Joseph Campbell points out the necessity of an ally to help heroes get from one threshold to another. One of his key points can be found in his intro (page 4): “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.” Inotherwords, hero status is not reserved for so-called heroes. Ordinary people who embark upon any sort of journey may well encounter the archetypal elements Campbell identifies. When characters respond to a call and a mentor, seek out allies to help them overcome obstacles, and emerge stronger for the journey—these characters resonate with readers for generations.

    Campbell would agree that victims who feel sorry for themselves don’t make for compelling characters. But victims who hear a call and respond, who seek justice or some other truth and overcome obstacles to find their way—those are the victims who become ordinary heroes.

  6. But let me add that Campbell would say there is a time for the victim to feel sorry for him/herself — a time within the story arc where the pity works. A time when the character is THIS CLOSE to achieving his/her goal, and some new obstacle is thrown in the way, and the character collapses in despair. It all seems to be too much. S/he is ready to give up. But then, of course, s/he doesn’t. S/he remembers the wisdom of the mentor or advice of the ally or the secret (or strength) within — whatever it is — the character emerges from “the belly of the whale” to overcome that final obstacle, after all.

    Now this sounds terribly trite the way I’ve put it here. It only works when the storyteller finds some new way to tell the ancient journey-story. Told well, the story will resonate with readers and offer hope for victims. It’s all in how you tell it.

  7. pamwatts says:

    Anne, that’s so interesting! There is totally a point in The Dollmage when Annakey finally feels sorry for herself. But at that point so much crap has been laid on her that we almost want it. And it’s finally being raped that pushes her over the edge–something I think we find completely understandable. This is the event that leads to the big turning point for her. Throughout the novel she’s been told that she isn’t who and what she thinks she is. And it’s this event that finally makes her say “f— it!” And makes her do what she’s been wanting and needing to do all along.

    I seem to recall a similar dark night of the soul for Gilly–again about two-thirds of the way into the book. And Jacob Have I Loved, too, now that I think of it. So great point!

  8. Pingback: Interview with Franny Billingsley, Author of Chime | Strong in the Broken Places

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