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The Ethics of Tragedy: Plot Victims are People Too!
by Paula Fleming

Return to Characters, Viewpoint, and Names · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Stories are often most effective when the stakes are highest. It's natural, therefore, to inflict the greatest hardships upon our characters. Death, disfigurement, molestation, disease, loss of loved ones, rape, exile . . . This is the stuff that tries characters' souls and makes for do-or-die storytelling.

However, I believe that using horrible events merely as a means to drive plot is wrong. I also believe that the callous use of tragedy leads to emotionally flat stories.

In the critically acclaimed 1988 mainstream novel The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver, a toddler is raped. The novel focuses on an adult woman's maturation process as she becomes the accidental adoptive mother of the toddler. The emotionally and intellectually stunted toddler is a mere prop, a catalyst for development in the protagonist. Later in the book, the child is threatened by a child molester in the park. Again, the consequences for the child are not dealt with, as the story focuses on the emotions of the adoptive mother. This is wrong. Infant rape victims -- even fictional ones -- deserve to be more than props in the lives of their adult caretakers. Also, aside from the vague concern any decent person has for the well-being of an abused child, we never feel a compelling, sharp, driving fear for this child's welfare.

Note: Before I get hate mail from Barbara Kingsolver fans, let me assure you that I love and appreciate her work in general. I just feel strongly that this novel illustrates an ethical flaw I see all too often in science fiction/fantasy stories.

In contrast, consider Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs. A serial killer is preying on women, and the body count is rising. However, the victims aren't just plot points. They're not just corpses to provide clues to the detective. The victims are people. FBI agent Clarice Starling unravels the mystery, not just by discussing the case with another serial killer (Hannibal Lecter), but by mentally inhabiting the skin of the first victim. She visits the woman's home, imagines what it was like to wear her clothes, to walk in her body, and to find a "friend" in a monster. On the other end of the killer's trail, we meet his current victim, the woman he's starving in his basement so her skin will become loose and easier to peel, and she, too, is very much a real person with a family, aspirations, flaws, and genuine grit. We really want this woman to survive, which makes us care all the more about Clarice Starling's mission.

In one book, the victim exists so that the author can write an exciting story. In the other book, people exist who happen to be horribly victimized at the time of the story. One approach is voyeuristic; the other is empathetic. One approach makes the unfortunate into objects; the other treats them as participants.

Science fiction and fantasy stories often deal with tremendous trauma. Here are just a few possible examples:

  • A rebel cousin stabs the king and queen to death before the eyes of the young princess; he then snatches her and forcibly marries her to cement his claim to the throne.

  • A soldier in the Bug Wars hears his space-cast shipmates slowing dying on his radio, begging for help that he can't give. He returns home with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, haunted by their disembodied voices.

  • The teenaged son of a witch is, unknown to her, ritually seduced and raped by her coven every full moon.

The above examples are all powerful traumas that could fuel powerful stories. But will we use the horror of murder, of war, of rape for cheap thrills? Or will we use it to explore victimization -- and the struggle to survive -- with sensitivity and an eye to illuminating the extremes of the human condition?

My guess is that, if the victims are our protagonists, most of us have enough of a grasp of the craft of writing, and enough sensitivity, to render them as complete human beings, with souls -- no matter how disrupted -- that exist before, after, and apart from the trauma. However, when a victim is not the main character, do we treat them with the same respect? What if, in the above examples, our story is about the castle guard who's in love with the princess, the wife whose husband returns from the war, or the mother who discovers why her son is so disturbed? In these stories, do our victims become mere props, plot points, or story elements? Or do we accord them the respect due human beings, no matter their misfortune or condition, and give them lives of their own on the page?

Giving every character a purpose that is their own, not just considering their purpose in the story, makes for richer storytelling. It's also the right thing to do.

Copyright © 2005 Paula Fleming
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.


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