Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Victims As Heroes

Heroes tend to get the short end of the stick. To drive the plot, so often the villain gets a head start, and their goal in the narrative is usually to make the hero’s lives miserable.

Just take a look at the early Disney movies. Snow White, Cinderella, Dumbo, Bambi… Even according to Mayerson On Animation, the more active the protagonist, the less money Disney made in the box office. The conclusion this blogger made was that characters need to be either helpless victims or entirely altruistic to be sympathetic characters.

Well, what works for Disney doesn’t work for YA.

Even if it were true, just making a character a victim doesn’t make them sympathetic. I have so many examples that I could use, but I’m going to take the high road and mention Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is a victim through and through. His entire life is one big injustice, and the worst of it is that you have to see all of it. Even outside of his life, there seems to be nobody but assholes and injustice on a grand scale. Nothing is fair, nothing is meaningful, and nothing matters. Slaughterhouse-Five may be one of my favorite books, but it’s an absolutely terrible example of a sympathetic character. No one can sympathize with Billy Pilgrim because he does nothing. He’s simply a vehicle with which the story is possible. The story works because in the book, it’s not important that you sympathize with Billy Pilgrim, but the same thing happens in other works of fiction where it’s essential to the story; the victim just becomes a vehicle.

I’d say it’s even more important for YA stories to include sympathetic, active characters than any other genre because of the nature of the audience. Teenagers are inherently reactive, and the lay-down-and-die mentality is openly mocked – ever heard of the emo subculture? It’s openly mocked by about every subculture for essentially being about being a victim. ‘Young people’ as news-sources likes to call anyone age 18-30, have been considered the movers and shakers of so many political movements. These ‘Young People’ set out to do things, and teenagers often think the same way, but because they’re unable to vote feel alienated by the political process, and really most other authority. The government considers them children and unable to decide for themselves, yet they’re still able to be tried as adults for crimes. Because of this, it’s exciting to see something done by somebody their age.

Part of the reason for the need of active protagonists is that teenagers don’t want to be weak and ineffectual, but another has to do with the simple archetype of the Hero’s Journey, common in all works of fiction, but most common in YA and Fantasy. Its appeal is that the hero’s Journey is about somebody growing up. Essential to the hero’s journey is that the character cross from being reactive to being active. There was a shove at the beginning, and then it's the hero’s job to push back all the way not only to stop from being the victim, but also to improve themselves as people. The hero can’t continue to mope or be victimized if they’re going to destroy the evil that put them there in the first place, so it can stop tormenting anyone once and for all. To do this, the hero needs to decide that something has to be done, and that they’re the only one willing and able to do it, so they do it.

A victim is the best way to earn pity and can be good to start of a story, but it can’t continue until the end. It makes the hero weak and unable to cope with their own problems, and that’s something that teenagers, above all other groups, can’t stand. So, don’t follow Disney’s early examples; give us some active heroes.


keri mikulski :) said...

Good stuff... So true.

Andrew Carmichael said...

Personally, I say one major difference between books needing an active MC while movies don't is that you watch movies for 1.5 hours. It's not that long, and you get to see the villian doing things so it's still interesting. In a book, you don't see the villian doing anything. Sure, they might do stuff, but it's only from the POV of the MC. So if the MC isn't doing anthing, then no one is.

Also, since most YA doesn't have a physical villian, you kind of need someone to be active. I don't know if I really attribute the trend of active protags in YA to teenagers being inherently reactive. To me it's more the fact that teenagers are inherently egocentric and, so, want to identify and then have the MC do something so they can feel like they are doing something, too.

I think there are a lot books, some which are pretty popular, where the protag is a victim. I don't think being a victim means you can't be active. To me, the best books are the ones where the characters change. Where they are a passive victim, but become active through the course of the story.

Maybe that's just me, though.

Haphazard said...


I said in my original post, "A victim is the best way to earn pity and can be good to start of a story, but it can’t continue until the end."

If a character is a victim, they can't remain a victim. What you said.

Andrew Carmichael said...

I don't know...

I think a victim can be a legit character through a whole book if there's a more concrete villian to make it so. I can't think of examples at the moment (I'll try to later) but I think books where the protag is a victim, stays a victim, and may be active but continues to be a victim until a bittersweet, or even depressing, ending. There are even the books were the victim-ish character is just kind of bad at being active, so other characters are active for them. Basically Disney movies.

Twilight comes to mind for this. Bella's kind of in a tight spot, in a way. There's no much she can do. Things affect her, but she doesn't affect anything herself. She's mostly a victim (of inactivity?) and if it weren't for others working around her then nothing would really happen. But these books are wildly popular (even if there are people who dislike them a lot) showing that in the right circumstances an active villian or active secondaries can take the place of a fully active, or successfully active, protag...who can continue to be a victim in their own way.

Jordan said...

Andy: "To me, the best books are the ones where the characters change. Where they are a passive victim, but become active through the course of the story."

This *might just* be the reason I'm so frustrated with my character Julian...by nature he's passive, so passive that the very fact he does nothing brings upon him the major conflict of the book...trouble is, I don't think he ever becomes more active, at least not until the very very end. Not in the way that can can get him out of prison.

This is gonna make me seriously think about the structure of the story. Because, while his passiveness is a major theme, it's not very exciting for the reader. Perhaps I need to show him DOING something for a change...maybe I'll give him a hobby.

Great post Hap. Not sure if I agree that teenagers are inherently reactive...they are, to a certain extent, but that might come from laziness, fear, the desire to fit in...half the time kids want to stand out, not just fit in. Growing up is a complicated balance of act/react. Life is.


Teenagers are so egocentric. It's a survival technique, all kids use it to assure they get their basic needs. However, the YA years are where you learn that the world doesn't revolve around you. How you deal with that knowledge is what makes a good story.

Haphazard said...

Twilight books may be wildly popular, but why? It's because of Edward, a secondary character.

Romance stories tend to leave the main role a blank slate to give the reader somewhere to insert themselves to fulfill the fantasy.

Have you ever talked to the Twilight fans? nobody reads the story for Bella. She's boring. They all read for the secondary characters and villains. She may be there, but she's not a sympathetic characters. There are some wildly popular stories where the main character is still the victim, but for the record, not a whole lot of people like the main character and read the story for the secondaries.

~grace~ said...


"I think a victim can be a legit character through a whole book if there's a more concrete villian to make it so."

But then wouldn't you be reading it for the villain and not the protag? Which is perfectly legit, I think--I watch Silence of the Lambs for Hannibal Lecter and not Starling. But then it's a different type of story, less protag-centric.

Good post, Hap! Bring on the active heroes!

Andrew Carmichael said...

@ Jordan: While I think some of the best books are as I said, there are still many many good ones with passive MCs. I think that if you feel like Julian's story is still intersting and compelling and all of that then you should keep him as he is. In life, some people are passive. It doesn't always make them boring. So Julian can be passive and still be part of a very interesting story that people could love and be absorbed by. Believe in yourself!! lol

@ Hap: That's my point exactly. You don't need the MC to be jumping into things and fighting the villians and all of that. Twilight is still YA, even if it's romance. Romance still counts, doesn't it? And, also, not all romance has inactive characters...I think it fully depends on the story. Victim characters with active secondaries works...if there's something to drive it: a villian. This is a Disney movie, as you've said.

@ Grace: Yup, I agree, you sometimes read for the villian. But, like I said, then you need a villian. With the concrete villian you can have a passive/semi-active/victim protag and it's okay. But they're still the protag...and you probably don't identify with the villian. Really, it's all a story by story thing, I think, and a lot of stuff can work. It just depends, you know?

Jordan said...

Perhaps in that case, with the more dominant villain, it's a tango...because you still need the protagonist. The protagonist plays an important role in the story, involving conflict and goals and whatnot. (The protagonist doesn't have to be the main character...POV character...either. Great Gatsby stock answer.)

Even if the protagonist is lame and everyone hates him, he's needed. And the villain's needed in that case too, to make up for the lame boring protagonist. It's duality, it's the stuff mythologies are made of.

Haphazard said...


Yes, but the point is that victim characters don't make sympathetic ones. Making a hero a victim isn't a good way to make somebody like them. They need to be somewhat active to be liked.

Jordan said...

@Andy: Thanks for the encouragement! I'm putting Julian on the back burner for a while, and then I'll come back and see what I can do with him. :)

Andrew Carmichael said...

@ Hap: Is liking a character and sympathizing with them the same thing, though?

Haphazard said...

@Andrew: please read through my last comment more thoroughly.

Andrew Carmichael said...

@ Hap:

"Yes, but the point is that victim characters don't make sympathetic ones. Making a hero a victim isn't a good way to make somebody like them. They need to be somewhat active to be liked."

I did read. You say Victims don't make Sympathetic Characters. Victims aren't liked. Active is liked.

I'm asking, are liked characters and sympathetic characters the same thing?

Haphazard said...

Liked characters and sympathetic characters aren't necessarily the same thing, but most of the time they overlap. I'd say it's more likely that a character is sympathetic and not liked than liked and sympathetic.

Andrew Carmichael said...

Then why can't a victim be sympathized with?

I don't like MCs very much. But that doesn't mean I don't sympathize with them. If I sympathize with them, then I'm interested in them. They don't have to be active for me to sympathize, but I have to either like or sympathize with the character to continue reading.

Meaning...a victimized, passive character with whom I sympathize will make me read just as much as a loved active character. They just need a reason to be a victim. (I think people have problems with the emo subculture because they're (usually) not actual victims of anything other than their fave band not having a new song, or maybe not being able to get that perfect rhyme for a poem...)

Haphazard said...

Andy, you're making me sound like a total bitch here because I can't sympathize with the character you've described.

The only time I can is when the character doesn't see themselves as a victim, or pushes the victim status aside in favor of something more important.

What I meant by a sympathetic character is more like the main character of An American Tragedy. He's completely understandable but still an absolutely disgusting character as a human being.

Andrew Carmichael said...

So, then, this is about a personal choice in characters, not an overall analysis of the YA market?

Haphazard said...

I don't believe a main character can be liked without overcoming their victim status. I believe that this is true for all genres, but holds especially true for YA. If you can find me evidence that I'm a minority, I'll change my position.

Andrew Carmichael said...

I'm just questioning the connections you're making between victimized, active, passive, likable, and sympathetic characters. I'm not saying you're a minority...I'm just wondering if what you're saying is really an end-all, so to speak, for YA characters.

Haphazard said...

Andy, I think you've also got to see that it's very difficult to make a character entirely passive.

Kurt Vonnegut did it with Slaughterhouse-Five, and Disney has honed it into a fine art. A lot of characters aren't entirely passive and have victim elements, but either grow out of them or the active part of them shines through at the end. It has to, or else there's no point to the story, it was just stuff happening to the character without the character doing anything for themselves.

That said, different people have different thresholds for sympathy for passive characters -- mine is relatively low.

Jordan said...

I'm at work right now so I don't have the exact reference, but I do believe one of the ways to make your character more sympathetic to the reader, according to Orson Scott Card in his excellent Characters and Viewpoint, is to make them suffer all sorts of things, from physical pain to psychological torture.

Of course, how long this goes on depends on the character and the story and what you're trying to say. Maybe it will annoy people if the character never gets over their "victim" status, maybe another character steps up as more active and interesting and whatnot, maybe the victim eventually gets back at their tormentors. Irrelevant. The bottom is, people tend to feel sorry for victims. And feeling sorry for someone is one sympathy.

But yea. Liking is totally different from sympathy and identification (which is being able to understand why someone is the way he is, I suppose). I hated Billy Pilgrim so much I could not get through Slaughterhouse Five, even though I tried on two separate occasions. Even though he was the ultimate victim.

Andrew Carmichael said...

@ Hap: I agree that you can't really have an entirely passive character.

@ Jordan: I agree. With you, Orson Scott Card, and not being able to get through Slaughterhouse Five. lol

Sage said...

Hmm. I definitely have to agree with several things people have said. Liking and being sympathetic to characters is not the same thing. Of course, the sympathy is more heartfelt when you *do* like the character, but that doesn't mean you can't get away with a bastard who people will sympathize with.

I'm thinking about the original post and the assertion (not Hap's but the original source's) that Disney movies with passive MCs did better. And I have two thoughts one that.

1) This can not possibly be a true statistic. Isn't Beauty and the Beast one of the most beloved Disney movies? I mean you go to get a used copy of the DVD and it's $60 (guess how I know this?). You can't tell me that Belle is a passive MC. Most if not all of the more recent movies (Little Mermaid on, I'd say) have had active protags. Ariel, Belle, Aladdin, Mulan, Hercules, etc. (Okay, I finally went and read the link, and the OP does cite the later films, including the successes. It seems that one point of that post is the early vs. more recent)

2) Even with the classics, I wouldn't say that the character was completely passive. Snow White doesn't actively fight the evil queen and she doesn't seek out her prince, but she does make friends with the animals and cares for the dwarves, both which end up benefitting her towards that happily ever after.

Cinderella likewise makes friends with the animals, which helps her out when she gets locked up near the end. She works hard to get to go to the ball, but the antags thwart her, first by making her work so hard that she can't get ready herself, then by destroying the dress made by her aforementioned animal friends. She works for a goal, the antags ruin it. Does this sound like passive conflict or active conflict to you? But also, why do we suppose she gets a fairy godmother when nobody else in the story does. By nature of being a hard-working, good person?

(Note that most recent Cinderella adaptations have even *more* active Cinderella's. Examples: Ever After, Ella Enchanted (Look at me avoid a plug))

As said above, it's hard to have a completely passive MC. There are definitely ranges of passivity and characters (as do people in RL) can run the gammet and still be likable.

I think that victimization of the MC is the same way. And a character can be a victim of many different things. They can be a victim of society, of other characters, of a natural disaster, of their own beliefs. Of course, not all conflict derives from the victimization of a character, but you can easily take the different types of conflict (man vs. society, man vs. man, etc.) and relate them to victimization of a character.

Is a character a boring character because they're a victim of, say, racism? Are they passive because they're being victimized? Are they boring if they don't fight it with fists or words or even by sitting in the front of the bus, but by acting towards a totally different goal while this victimization is going on? I'd say no, or at least not necessarily.

Okay, by now, you've all posted about 20 more times, I'm sure, but I'll post anyway ;)