Characterization: Victimhood & Active vs Passive Characters

Sarah Hoyt wrote an interesting post on victimhood and the cultural imperitive in the West which makes us root for the underdog, yet many writers confuse being the underdog with being the good guy.  She has a lot of great info/background, so I’d recommend you give it a look, you can find it here.  I thought I’d write a bit on the craft of writing characters from my own perspective.

First off, it’s something I’ve seen, even in mainstream media.  It is a cultural tendency, especially in America, for us to see someone worse off (or just apparently worse off) than us and to feel empathy.  Yet when you go this route as a writer, you automatically face an uphill battle for the character to grow.  Indeed, the first part of their growth will, by necessity, being to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get out of the rut… or else they’re not a fully fleshed character… they’re a trope.

If you are going to start someone out as the victim in order to garner reader sympathy, well, there’s lots of hazards.  The typical revenge story has the murder of the family or friends that sets the hero out on their journey… yet at the heart of a revenge story is the tale of destruction upon the character themselves.  They can’t let go of their hate/anger and so end up destroying themselves in their effort to destroy their enemy.  Hamlet is an excellent example of this, as the titular character literally destroys himself and everyone around him… because he’s a victim and he wants justice.  Hamlet is an intelligent and presumably capable character who brings down the lives of dozens through his own indecision and self-pity.  But it’s a tragedy, so I suppose we’re supposed to see that all coming…

A character who identifies with this type of event is automatically crippling their own growth… until they let go of that.  And if they grow as a character to release their own pity for themselves then why should a reader then feel sympathy for their plight?  An example of this is the John Milus movie: Conan the Barbarian.  The titular character sees his entire village put to the sword, his father ripped limb from limb by dogs and his mother beheaded.  He’s sold as a slave as a child and dehumanized into a gladiator who fights for his survival and little else.  Conan, however, is a survivor.  This is established throughout the beginning of the movie as he not only meets every challenge, he excells.  Conan is a character who doesn’t identify as a passive character, he seeks out ways to excell and succeed.  Also, it’s a fun movie with lots of violence and bloodshed, but I digress.

Too, when you destroy the character to make him a ‘victim’ you automatically make the character a reactive character.  They aren’t going out on their own to do stuff, they were forced to do so.  This takes the initiative away.  A character without initiative, who is spun along by the efforts and actions of others is not a strong character.  It gives a starting place and it allows growth, yes, but I would argue that it makes a character less interesting.  Stories are, at their root, about people going places and doing things.  I would say that if your character is continually affected by the actions of others… perhaps you are writing from the perspective of the wrong character.

Active characters get out and do things.  They slay the dragon or lead the insurrection or marry the prince(ss).  When they encounter an obstacle or downturn in life, they don’t set on their hands and whine, they pick themselves up and they face it or find a way around.  JRR Tolkiens Lord of the Rings would have ended quite differently if Frodo just gave up at the first sign of hardship.  Yes, characters are allowed to have times of moral terpitude or uncertainty.  That is often where secondary characters shine, such as Sam, who whenever Frodo couldn’t go on, stepped in to cheer him up or get him moving.  The point is, that even the most unhappy, put upon heroes have to take action… and the writers who identify their characters as miserable put-upon underdogs need to think cautiously about just what mentality they’re designing their characters towards.  Hardship is a part of the story, a character can’t succeed at everything or there is no risk… but it’s how the character reacts to that hardship, what values they have and what their responses are that defines them.

An author could quite easily write a ‘hero’ who rises from wretched and abject misery to preeminant success… with little or no effort on their part, beyond the suffering they endure knowing they’ll get their just desserts on those who opposed them.  Granted, I don’t know that I could finish reading the story, especially if the self-proclaimed hero does nothing to further themselves.  Worse, in a way, is if the ‘hero’ could find success through their own actions, yet they waited or endured instead.  This smacks of self-satisfied feel-good nonsense: that enduring hardship makes us grow or is admirable.  That is complete drivel.  The man living on the streets collecting donations for himself isn’t growing… he’s static, he is unchanging.  Hard work makes us grow.  Reacting to those events, digging down inside ourselves and finding an inner strength to not only go on, but to improve our conditions is admirable.  The woman who puts herself through college working as a janitor, refusing loans and handouts, is admirable.  A character who has pride in him or herself is one who we want to read about… pride in accomplishments and capabilities.

Character growth is the essential part of a story and while I’ve seen the victim mentality as a starting point (here’s looking at you Edge of Tomorrow), it can never be the end point for a strong, central character… not unless you want to turn them into a narcissitic villain (which is an option, that bitterness that comes from victimhood is the perfect fodder for turning good men into monsters).  Even then, though, a victim’s mentality only goes so far… and itself must be replaced, else the character would remain too passive to accomplish anything.



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