Revisiting the victim story
One of the first lessons we’re taught as novelists, right after “Show, not tell,” is that we shouldn’t write victim stories. Narratives in which the central character is constantly being trampled down by circumstance, without making any effort to take his fate into his own hands, may be superficially affecting for the author, but for the reader, they’re a bore. We want our heroes to take action; if they fail, it should be because of their own choices, not the result of an unfair universe. It’s largely for this reason that I’ve never been a fan of the trope of the innocent man wrongfully accused, unless, as in North by Northwest, it’s merely a pretext for a more satisfying series of adventures. Such plots tend to be built around cosmic bad luck, misunderstandings, and institutional indifference, which is why they’re much less interesting than stories that grow organically from the main character’s decisions. (I’d much rather watch a movie about an otherwise innocent man rightfully accused.)
But sometimes a victim story is the only honest way to approach the material. I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, which gives us the victim story in its purest form: the title character, the unassuming Jewish handyman Yakov Bok, is arrested in the second chapter for a murder he didn’t commit, and spends the rest of the novel being held without trial in a Russian prison. The result is a highly readable yet intentionally frustrating novel, based loosely on the real Beilis case, in which Yakov’s situation gets worse with every passing page, leaving him with no way of altering his own fate, except in his refusal to confess. At times, the novel’s relentless bleakness becomes hard to take. Yet it’s hard to imagine a conventionally satisfying version of this story that would still be intellectually honest: Yakov is a victim, like many real men and women before and after him, and to credit him with more agency than he really possessed would be a lie.
This is also true of such writers as Kafka, and more recently of those authors who have written about modern absolutist or totalitarian states. To read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, as I did earlier this year, is to be reminded that there are entire generations of human history in which the usual conventions of fiction—that protagonists are primarily in control of their own decisions and rise or fall on the actions they’ve taken—amount to a historical falsehood. Fighting back isn’t an option here; it can only lead to death. While there may be room for small triumphs and moments of dignity, they don’t have much in common with the kind of action that we often demand from the stories we read. And the same holds true, to a lesser extent, of the traps in which we can all find ourselves, in which, rightly or wrongly, no real action seems possible: depression, addiction, emotional desperation. These are all worthy subjects for fiction.
So what’s a writer to do? Ultimately, the rule to avoid the victim story is just like any other writing guideline: a form of safety first. Given the choice, especially early on, we should write stories in which characters are able or willing to take action to change their own circumstances. Such a story is likely to be more readable and engaging than one built around a character’s helplessness, and only by writing this kind of fiction can we learn to write meaningfully about the lack of action without falling into sentimentality. “With me, it’s story, story, story,” Malamud once said, and a novel like The Fixer wouldn’t work if it weren’t written by a novelist who understood how to construct this kind of narrative. Most writers, even those who publish books like this, aren’t at that level yet—because writing a victim story requires incredible reserves of strength.