Yep, you know it, right? Once more I came across a promising book by a newcomer, and started reading with some enjoyment, only to hit the wall when I realized this young writer had fallen into one of the pitfalls very common to any new writer, but worse now, it seems, by the prevailing mood of the times and the great nonsense kids are taught in school these days. Also the nonsense in the media, too.
Look, let me make it clear now in bold print: VICTIMS ARE NOT HEROES.
Victims CAN be heroes, but as a role in society, in literature, in life in general, those are quite different.
Take those young women kidnapped and kept confined for years by the madman in Ohio. ALL of them were victims. The one who risked everything, including possibly her life (he had threatened to kill them if they escaped) to tell the guy on the street of her plight and ask for help is a hero. Similarly, the man who rescued them kept repeating he was no hero. And he was right. He didn’t confront dragons or even disgrace to free them. He was a good Samaritan and in our day and age admirable for rescuing perfect strangers, but he was not a hero.
So, what is a hero? And does a book need a hero?
A hero is someone who risks something that matters to him/her to achieve his/her goals. The more important the reason, the greater the heroism. An admirable hero is someone who risks everything to save a perfect stranger.
We all — well, me all — have heard the story of the tramp, which Heinlein considered the ultimate hero. Like this: When a child Heinlein used to frequent a public park where there was a train line. A young couple were walking along the tracks, when the woman’s heel became caught in the tracks. The husband struggled to pull her off, but couldn’t. A train approached. A tramp, a perfect stranger, came to the rescue. He too couldn’t free her. All three were hit, and the woman and the tramp were killed. (I’ve often wondered about the design of her shoe, and also if all of them weren’t caught in one of those foolish panics one gets into when the obvious doesn’t occur to one. In that, perhaps because I’d heard the story and thought about it, when while crossing the street in Portugal one of my rather expensive stilettos caught in the tram line, I bent down, unbuckled it and abandoned it, returning home with one shoe, but rather the better for the wear. Which is neither here nor there when it comes to heroism.)
The tramp was a hero because he was willing to risk his life for a stranger.
It’s not heroism to risk something you don’t care about for someone you love. It’s generous and kind, but not heroism. Say I sacrificed one of my many rings for one of my sons. No applause. I never wear rings, since I’m one of those persons who does things, and my hands are always at risk of getting caught, wet, etc. So the only rings are wedding and engagement. All others are safely in the drawer and I’d guess half of them no longer fit me.
Further there is the “risk” part. The hero risks everything, but THERE MUST be a chance of winning. Otherwise your hero is just a fool and a masochist.
Which brings us to “Do you need a hero?” in your book. I don’t know. I find I often need a bit of everything, heroes and victims, fools and sages.
But here’s the thing: your protagonist need not be a hero, but he needs to PROTAG. That is, faced with something that needs doing, a situation that needs changing, an intolerable condition or a challenge, he should be active in resolving it.
Beyond which, you should NOT treat a victim, a martyr or a damnfool masochist like a hero. People shouldn’t tell the poor little thing “You’re such a hero” just because she’s been kicked around by everyone her entire life. Yes, there is a degree of heroism in merely surviving extremely difficult circumstances, but it is rarely (though not never) the kind of heroism that inspires others.
“But Sarah,” Say you. “What about the stories of prisoners of war or abused children who grew up in closets and went on to be doctors, or that book you actually liked about the three sisters escaping the Cultural revolution?
Nota bene what you just said. The prisoner of war who survives with mind and courage intact is a hero because he’s suffering for a reason. He’s suffering for the sake of a cause he serves, which is greater than himself. If he survives without cracking, more people stand to benefit than himself, at least from his example. The same thing with the child who survives and eventually thrives under unimaginable abuse. He came through the horrors and made something out of it. He might not have done it for others, but in telling his story he’s showing others escape is possible. Same with the three sisters escaping the Cultural Revolution. They did something about it.
It’s like this: I’ve heard everyone who died on 9/11 being called a “hero” and cringed. The people of flight 93 were heroes. Their attempt to save themselves was futile, but they managed to spare a target and many other lives. (And they knew they were risking their lives.) The people who went back into the towers to rescue strangers and co-workers, particularly those who went back over and over again till fate caught up with them were heroes, as great as any sang in myth and history.
The people who died were victims. This is not a disparagement of them. Some of them might even have been brave, and under different circumstances, might have saved others. But if they were caught about the impact line, they died. There was nothing else to do or be done. Nothing they could try. They were victims.
All of us are victims sometimes, through circumstances that can’t be fought. We all have friends who were victims of cancer. And at some time or another, all of us are victims of circumstance. We arrive too late to get the prize, get stuck in traffic when we head out to meet someone who could help us, have a job interview on a day when the boss is ill.
There is even a role for victims in books, to provide a foil for the heroes.
Now victims should not — preferably — be sopping wet. By which I mean they shouldn’t behave like wet cloth, unwieldy, heavy and impossible to do anything with. The ideal victim is plucky but defeated by circumstances. An even better victim is a would-be hero who fails against insurmountable circumstances.
I realized yesterday re-reading Dresden, the only fair use of a helpless victim (who is neither a child nor handicapped) is a brief appearance and then offing, so as to let the protagonist know just how BAD the bad guy is. It is important to evoke both pitty and horror. It is also important not to have the poor sap on screen for very long, because he’s not interesting.
And here we come to what bothers me about confusing victims and heroes. People who are heroes DO something and as such are ideal for protagonists.
So when people who have been taught that SOMEHOW there’s heroism in being sh*t upon by everyone decide to write a book, they choose the victimgest (totally a word. Also shut up) of victims. This is fine if that victim is at some point going to rebell against the slings and arrows of stupid writer. But if they just lay there, being a pin cushion for the arrows, and moaning about their fate and how everyone hates them for being purple, it grows tedious very rapidly. What they’re being is martyrs and martyrs for no better reason that that the author unfairly ablated their spine at literary birth.
Perhaps there are people out there who like reading about people who are soggy wet, and drag through the pages, leaving a trail of snot and tears in their wake. I don’t.
And I find the author never allowing the character to fight back, as though the lack of rum-gumption made them somehow admirable, a despicable trait, that makes me want to make the author the victim of several well chosen catastrophes.
Let your protagonist protag. If he or she starts out as a victim, let him/her turn the tables and achieve something, even if it’s “just” resisting.
And if by chance your protag is a hero, you just might inspire someone in a very difficult situation who desperately needs the courage to do what must be done. It’s been known to happen. And it’s a goal worth fighting for.