Friday, March 15, 2013

Blaming Victims

Are victims sometimes to blame for what happens to them? Can we place victims on a continuum from the "innocent victim" who does nothing at all to "cause" his victimization (is sitting at home reading a book with the alarm system turned on when his house is invaded) to the "blameworthy victim" (who goes out to a dive, flashes his money, gets drunk, and accepts a ride home from a stranger)? In the social sciences, the idea of attributing varying degrees of blame to victims is now controversial and often challenged by both scholars and victims' advocates.

But the idea that a victim might do something really stupid or reckless or provocative or dangerous and somehow deserve what happens is a thought that many people -- let's face it, most of us -- sometimes have when hearing a story of how someone became a victim. We know that we ourselves have been careless and stumbled into situations that we shouldn't have, and we were lucky nothing bad happened. We hold ourselves and others to the standard of not walking into danger (unless we have a badge and a gun). We expect sensible people not to go for a walk in the woods at night when there might be predators lurking. This is why we aren't thrilled when female protagonists in modern novels go poking about to discover the source of the strange noises coming from the locked wing of the house with only a flashlight in hand.

On the other hand, we are prepared to give Little Red Riding Hood a pass as a victim. She is a sweet little girl who is on a praiseworthy mission. She is carrying a basket of food to her bedridden grandmother. And, wolves are mean, nasty creatures who gobble us both sweet little girls and ailing grandmothers. Of course, there are some of us who like wolves and think they're gotten a bad reputation in fairy tales.If we were retelling the tale -- as some writers have -- we would provide the wolf with a backstory. Or, we might have a closer look at Red and her grandmother. In fact, in our re-write, Red might be much older and much more dangerous, and the wolf might be minding his own business when he is lured into a trap. And Grandma might actually be Red's partner in crime. And when the wolf ends up dead, Red explains to the detectives who come to investigate that it was self-defense. Of course, by now she has exchanged her red cloak for a black wool coat and she is clearly distraught. The detectives comfort poor Red and leave with the wolf's sorry carcass, and Red and Grandma split the money that they stole from the poor wolf who had not only howled but won at the roulette table when he was in Vegas the weekend before.

The challenge for writers is to tell stories of crime and violence and somehow make both our victims and our offenders complex. The various environments (physical, social, economic, political) in which potential victims and would-be offenders come into contact with each other are important to the story. Even a victim who is "too stupid to live" deserves more than that as his epitaph.

I've been thinking a bit about this because I'm working on a new book, and I found that I needed to hit "pause" and give my victim more of a backstory before I could go on. I was trying to plunge in and power through the first draft (as some writers do so well). But having my victim become a victim because he was a "nice guy" who got caught up in something turned out not be sufficient. I had to go back to his childhood to understand his reaction to what has happened. In the process, I've gained a better understanding of his relationship with the person who is going to kill him. Is my victim to blame for his own upcoming death? No, not at all. But he does hold himself responsible for the situation that he finds himself in. And that makes me like him a lot better -- but I still have to kill him off. I feel really bad about it, but if he doesn't die, I have no story . . . as many a writer has said before he or she committed literary murder.

1 comment:

j welling said...

I saw Red at the bar in Max's New Kansas City and I can tell you she's nothing but trouble.

Anybody with a house account at Fleur Du Mal is nothing but trouble.

Whatever you do, don't let her stick you with the bar tab. It's a killer. They don't give Bellini's away.