Saturday, April 18, 2009
Tired of Victims
Is a character a Victim?
___ The character is treated extremely unfairly or cruelly
___ Even if the character has made a mistake of some kind, this treatment is out of proportion to the mistake
___ It always will be a mistake, since this character will not deliberately do anything wrong
___ The character’s response to the ill-treatment involves confusion, sorrow and guilt, possibly internalization of criticism
___ The character’s response does not involve rational disagreement, cool dignity, defiance, resentment, anger, plans of revenge, counter-threats, etc.
___ The character does not take any steps to change the situation or to escape it (not applicable if the character cannot get out of the situation)
___ Abuse does not change the character’s gentle, sweet, patient nature
___ The character is defended or rescued by other (good) characters, who may be fiercely protective of him or her
___ These rescuers will never encourage the character to toughen up, learn better and try some self-defence next time
___ It’s clear that the author intends the readers to feel sorry for/want to comfort the character
If three or more of these apply, the character may be a Victim. Five or more equals definite Victimhood. All ten and what’s left is a boneless bunny rabbit masquerading as a person. I read such a story today and ended up wishing the protagonist, who has some good points and who I liked originally, would just grow a pair.
Being gentle, soft-spoken, introverted or calm does not make a person a natural Victim. A perfect example of this is Andy Dufresne from Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption. When a couple of the other inmates demand oral sex from him, with the threat of having a blade rammed into his head if he tries to harm them in the process, he replies,
"But you should know that sudden serious brain injury causes the victim to bite down hard. In fact, I hear the bite reflex is so strong they have to pry the victim’s jaws open with a crowbar."
This is a great illustration of character abuse handled the right way. Andy doesn’t get (or need) anyone rushing in to defend or comfort him, but he doesn’t exactly remain the same person afterwards either. And I think what King wants us to do is admire Andy for the way he handles his problems, rather than pitying him for having those problems in the first place.
The Victim is still a popular character, for reasons described in this very entertaining (and very long) page on TV Tropes. And there are stories where such a character has a place – for instance, some romance novels include hurt/comfort scenes with either hero or heroine as Victim to twist the emotional thumbscrews.
Under my hard crusty exterior I have a soft marshmallowy heart, so I usually do have an “aww” reaction on first read of this kind of story. After that wears off, though, I feel annoyed that I’ve been manipulated into sympathy not for the devil but for the doormat. And if this happens more than once with the same character, it just doesn’t work.
That’s one reason I enjoyed Firefly – even though Simon and River Tam did get treated pretty badly, they never came across as Victims. Simon was told he needed to be “steely” and River was so messed up that most of the other characters were wary of her. The take-home lesson I get from that is it’s often better to let characters suffer, grow up, take hard knocks and learn from the experiences, rather than rushing in to dry their tears – or making the other characters do so.