The first part of this is going to be a short explanation of the title. What I mean by victim, as referring to one—or several—characters, is a person or people who do not make choices. They don’t act, but are acted upon. There are several successful novels where this is the case (Anna Karenina), but contemporary wisdom dictates that at least one character ought to have an impact on the story (this is known as a character-driven novel).
So, how can you tell whether your characters are victims? Here, have a list:
- Your novel is about the inevitability of a certain fate. Even though your characters struggle against the norm, by the end of the story they are forced to acquiesce to it. Think Romeo and Juliet, before the final scene. With the final scene, Shakespeare’s tale is one of the power of young love; without it, the classic love story is a warning to any would-be barrier-crossers. Don’t disobey your parents, or you’ll wind up dead, and the world will forget you. But Shakespeare’s clever, so he gives us that final scene.
- Your characters keep wondering why this is happening to them. They’re just an average, everyday nobody who lands in some horrible situation, with no way to get out. Note: if the main point of your novel is that everyday people can be extraordinary, disregard this. But if the inverse is true, you have a passive character on your hands.
- Your characters are static. I could write a whole post on static vs. dynamic characters (and I might, at some point), but the simple explanation is this: dynamic characters change, in response to events of the novel. This mainly pertains to the main character, as not everyone will be impacted by whatever happens. Your main character, however—and possibly a few minor characters—should change. Not just physically; in fact, for the purposes of determining static or dynamic, you should discount physical changes.
Ayn Rand referred to novels with actors as romantic novels, and victim-filled novels as trash—no, just kidding. She called them Naturalist works, under the assertion that any story taking the power away from characters inevitably gives it to nature. Think of the balance of power as a spectrum: on the left, nature is the sole force in the world, on the right it’s people. A good novel ought to lean more toward the characters having power, because the readers will be other people. You could write a story in which the finale concludes with a villain being struck by lightning, which arguably happens in real life, but it wouldn’t satisfy.
This is a short list. Can you think of anything to add? Would you like to see a Naturalist resurgence? I’d love to hear from you; leave a comment below, and I’ll do my best to respond.