Friday, 8 January 2010

the psychology of bullying scenes, or: hug a bully today

Someone behind Alanna grabbed her. She spun. A tall, gangling boy of nearly fourteen looked her over, a sneer on his thick mouth. He had cold blue eyes and sandy-blond hair that flopped over his forehead.

"I wonder what this is." His crooked teeth made him spit his s's. Alanna wiped a drop of saliva from her cheek. "Probably some back-country boy who thinks he's a noble."

- from Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure, first book in the Song of the Lioness Quartet
Bullies. They’re everywhere. They insult Tamora Pierce’s Alanna of Trebond, they gang up on George RR Martin’s Jon Snow, they appear in at least half the works posted on the Young Writers’ Society. Whenever I read a bullying scene, I get a surge of indignation. Not for the victims -- for the bullies.

Victims are protagonists, they get names, faces and personalities, the reader is intended to sympathise with them. Bullies are stock characters imported straight from the Department of Manufactured Conflict: cardboard cut-outs, often unnamed, rarely characterised. Victims are lone heroes; bullies are cowards, so they hunt in packs. Victims get snappy comebacks; bullies whine and sneer. (Note how the bully in the Tamora Pierce scene is described as ugly. Remember, kids: ugliness = evil!) If victims don’t triumph now, winning over spectators in the process, they’ll get public and humiliating revenge later. Bullies remain despicable characters throughout the narrative, despised by the readers, the author and the other characters, unless the victim wins even them over with their awesomeness.

Poor bullies, they never win.

The classic lone victim vs multiple bullies scenario has power because it taps into a ton of underlying assumptions, myths and values:
  • We admire the loner. Loners are powerful as individuals; only weak people and cowards, like bullies, have to co-operate.
  • Bullies invariably provoke the conflict. They attack out of the blue, without provocation. This taps into the classic victim complex, the feeling of being unjustly treated. Real-world conflicts are much more nuanced; the victim in a bullying scene, and by extension the reader, doesn’t need to feel any guilt or reservations about their part in a conflict, because they’re clearly in the right.
  • We see standing up against others as courageous. I wonder if this reflects a hostility to authority. Do bullies represent a tyrannical force the everyman hero has to resist?
  • Faceless, nameless, characterless bullies are easy to read. They’re bad. They’re not like us. We can hate them without any reservations. Well-drawn bullies with genuine motivations for their actions are more challenging because they’re more like us. Could we be bullies? If we were in their situation, what would we do?
  • Bullying justifies the victim’s retaliation. Under normal circumstances you can’t punch somebody who annoys you, but retaliatory violence by the victim against the bully is seen as fair, even where the violence seems disproportionate. I recently critiqued a story in which the protagonist permanently crippled a bully, ripping out his magic while he begged for mercy. The author and all the characters seemed to think that maiming is a justified response to bullying.
  • Readers of the fantasy novels I’m talking about tend to be bookish people and/or geeks who were bullied for real as children. There’s a reason Snacky’s Law is so commonly invoked -- the same reason I noted so many bullying scenes posted on the Young Writers' Society forums. Bullying scenes are a way to safely re-enact the trauma of being bullied, with ourselves as sympathetic victims, leading to our retaliation against the bullies and our ultimate triumph. Fantasy ranter Limyaael, whose awesomeness I can only hope to emulate, complained in her “Author’s Darling” rant:
I often feel faintly sick when, reading through a fantasy story, I realize that the author is ... taunting the bullies who tormented her in high school. She doesn't want to actually talk to these people, or perhaps they're in the past, dead or out of contact, and she can't. So she takes the chance to create a character who's her, put her through the same situation, and say, "Nah-nah-nah-boo-boo!"
So I can see why writers resort to bullying scenes. It’s a cheap and easy way of building reader sympathy, and your typical reader is disposed to like and sympathise with victims of bullying. But I hate the lack of motivation. Why do bullies never have a legitimate reason to bully the protagonist? Forget legitimate, any reason would be a plus. Has the protagonist never done anything, accidentally or deliberately, or been thought to do something, that might make the bully want to get their own back? Does the protagonist always have to be 100% squeaky-clean and the bully 100% randomly malicious to ensure reader sympathy falls into its proper place? (God forbid that the reader should ever rethink who deserves their sympathy.)

In the George RR Martin example I mentioned above, teenage viewpoint character Jon Snow is the bastard son of a noble, despised by commoners and nobles alike. Thanks to his privileged upbringing in his father’s castle, Jon is an excellent swordsman and mercilessly thrashes his opponents in training, humiliating them to the point that four of them ambush him in an armoury to get their own back. Jon is working through the justified retaliation part of the bullying cliche when -- I love Martin so much -- somebody actually calls Jon out on his behaviour: Jon is using his privilege to unfairly and unnecessarily humiliate his peers, and if he keeps harbouring a raging victim complex, none of them are ever going to learn to work together. And it will be entirely his fault.

I was so thrilled I nearly cried.

Another example of effective bullying: the pilot episode of the TV series Merlin. The pilot episode features teenage Merlin interfering to protect a servant from a bullying lord. Merlin is promptly thrown in jail, then in the stocks. What saves this scene? The bully is Arthur freaking Pendragon. The hero is a bully. Arthur is handsome, snarky, ridiculously heroic -- and a self-centred ass. I love Arthur, and I love that they had the nerve to make their hero bully someone in his opening scene.

Suggestions for writing bullying scenes?
  1. The purpose should not be to glorify the protagonist. Nor to make him look good in comparison to the evil bully.
  2. Bullies need a good reason to bully. Stereotypically evil motivations like “He’s just jealous of the protagonist” aren’t good enough.
  3. It is not open season on bullies. If someone makes insulting comments about the protagonist’s mother, the protagonist cannot legitimately chainsaw him to death.
  4. It’s okay for the protagonist not to be squeaky-clean all the time.
  5. Do not resort to making your victims beautiful and your bullies ugly as a cheap shorthand for good and evil. I swear, if I read another bullying scene in which the bully’s ugliness is lovingly described (like that Tamora Pierce scene) as a symbol of their nastiness, I will hunt someone down.
  6. Therapy for the writer =/= effective fiction for the reader.
  7. Don’t despise your own characters. It always shows.
(I enjoyed playing a little with bullying in THE INFERNAL FAMILY. My protagonist is continually harassed by his partner slash love interest, who thinks he’s a violent psychopath and kind of dumb as well -- all of which is absolutely true.)

What do you think? Have you noticed trends in bullying scenes in books or unpublished work? Can you improve on my analysis or my suggestions?

Further reading: Limyaael, “Breathing life into bullies”.


  1. This is such a well-thought out, brilliant post, Para! I can't even think of anything to add... with contemp you get the girl bullies, and that can often open a whole can of cliches. The blonde cheerleader and whatnot. Like you said, it's important to give layers to every situation.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, Emilia. I love your comment about cheerleaders, because that taps into an entirely new (and equally bizarre) weirdness: the Madonna-whore complex.

    The cheerleader represents the whore. She's sexualised, attractive to men and attracted to them. (Obviously she has to be shallow and bitchy: good girls don't have sex.) The protagonist is a virgin, free from the taint of female sexuality. If I remember rightly, the protagonist's comebacks in these scenes often target the cheerleader's sexuality -- the "at least I'm not a slut" kind of line.

    I'm fascinated by this topic. :)

  3. I don't have the books sitting in front of me, but I seem to recall on of the ASOIAF prologues having a bit of a bullying scene in it as well. It was set in Oldtown, and the victim, Pate, appeared to me to be the ugly one, while his harasser was a rich, pretty-faced boy of some noble blood. I don't remember if that's the way it was described, or my mind just inferred that.

  4. On the one hand, I agree that all important characters deserve some motivation. How can a bully not be important? If they have no effect on the protagonist, why put them in? If they have a great deal, maybe they helped indirectly to save the world, rescue the damsel, etc.

    But on the other hand, how do you present their motivation? In a first person or third limited pov, you focus on what the characters has observed. How many victims of bullying do you know who understood the reasoning behind their treatment?

    In a similar vein, if the bully really is ugly, why would the victim not focus on that as a source of relief? When you hate someone, when someone exerts power over you, snark and private disparagement is practically inevitable. Now, whether or not you say these things to the bullies face is a different issue. The amount of “standing up” to bullies protagonists engage in is ridiculous. That’s just not what victims of bullying do, really.

    On the topic of encouraging bullying by the victim: This is a tough subject. You skate very close to supporting the “it’s the victim’s fault” complex a lot of humans have. I’d say that the victim is not commonly the one to start the cycle, but they often play a large role in continuing it. Not always, but very often. Victims react in ways they shouldn’t. Which is not to say it’s their fault. Very few people in the world are capable of addressing this sort of problem the right way the first time. Do you tell an authority figure? You’re likely to get the “snitch” treatment. Many authority figures propose you “solve it yourself”. Perhaps they dislike you as well. It’s a cliché, yes, but authority figures are not above pettiness and spite.

    Yes, therapy is dangerous in writing, and common, but that doesn’t preclude the portrayal of bullying being an accurate and fair one. Now, when the writer and the bullying have been separated by many years, their negative emotions are going to dominate, which does lead to some issues. Most victims do not respond in the “right” way. They encourage the bullying by trying to get their own back, talking about the bully in a negative light, snarking, reacting. All of these things are going to encourage the bully to continue.

    But it’s important to keep in mind that the majority of bullying victims in literature are children. It’s hard to expect them to know which way to respond. Most adults don’t even know. Let me borrow the example of Jon Snow here. He has a certain attitude, a certain carriage, and this causes some of the other trainees to bully him. He responds by kicking butt in the yard. This makes them resentful. They bully him again, the cycle gets moving. Someone takes him to task for this.

    Now, John’s problem was his fault, and Martin does a great job of portraying it. But not every case is like that, so you have to be careful comparing them.

    I completely agree with all of your seven suggestions, though.

  5. I like it when the bully and victim end up as friends in the end. It shows that the bully isn't completely evil.

    In a first person novel or a third person with a strong POV, I think it's justified to portray the bully as completely evil. After all, everything's shown through the victim's eyes, and the victim won't see the good side to the bully. In the same vein, we often see the ugly parts of people we don't like, so an ordinary person who's a bully would seem uglier becasue we subconsciously want to see their bad aspects to make us feel better about ourselves.

    That's why I like it when the bully and the victim become friends. Then it gives an opportunity to show the bully's good aspects, without having to go out of character and see their positive qualities while the MC is being bullied. Reconcilliation is always better than revenge.

    Madonna-whore complex! That's funny.

  6. Interesting post, Para, especially because this has actually been on my mind the past few days.

    Everybody has a story. Nobody is nasty without a reason - granted, their reason may be superficial and unwarranted and whatnot - but it's a reason all the same.

    Great post!

  7. Wow, amazing post. This really got me thinking. Also, I love Merlin :D

  8. Thought provoking as always, Para! :)

  9. Great, thoughtful post, Para. :)

    You've given me several thinks to think about in regard to the bullying characters in my own manuscript.


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