Monday, April 30, 2012

Action, Agency, Passivity, Pacifism

There is a tactic some writers (and screenwriters) use to put their characters in the "hero" column.  It's a tactic that is most recently used in "The Hunger Games" (with a single exception that is glossed over so much it's barely an exception), but I first noticed it in about 20 years ago in a little B-movie thriller called "Surviving the Game".  The tactic is pretty simple:  You put your character in a life-or-death fight, but you let them slip through it without actively killing anyone.  Your hero might do something that lets their enemies get killed, but they don't take active agency.  They win, but their hands are clean.

And it's something of a cheat.

I mean, yes, it allows them to be hero by being exceptional, but at the same time, it's the author giving them a free pass. 

However, that doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as being actively a source of violence.  There's a difference between being a passive character to whom victory is handed by author fiat, and a pacifist character, who truly tries to get throw a violent situation by making the active choice of non-violence. 

See, that's the key difference.  A character who chooses not kill instead of a character who manages to get away with not killing despite being in a kill-or-be-killed situation.

This is the challenge that's been hitting me with Way of the Shield, as Dayne is a pacifist warrior.  That's not an oxymoron-- his "weapon" of choice is a shield, and when it comes down to it, he will actively take that role: put himself between another person and harm. 

But it's hard to mold that pacifism into action, at least in the way I'm used to.

In Thorn, in Holver Alley and in Maradaine Constabulary, my main characters were active, even impetuous.  They would jump into a situation and crack skulls.  In some cases, they would even actively seek out skulls that need cracking.  Dayne isn't going to do that. Nor is he, unlike the characters in Maradaine Constabulary, granted the same kind of official authority to go and take action.  So the challenge is finding that same internal drive that Veranix or Asti and Verci have, but have it being superego driven instead of id.

It's a very different way of thinking.  Dayne is, in many ways, the opposite of Veranix, but they are both heroes.  It's an exciting challenge. 

But the question is, to the readers, does using that cheat make a character a more "moral" hero, or does it come off as a cheat?


Anonymous said...

Katniss killed at least two people in the Hunger Games movie (three if you count Glimmer, which I do because Katniss intended the trackerjackers to harm--in the book it's four because the trackerjackers were responsible for two Careers' deaths). Cato was arguably a mercy kill, but the others were not. The movie let Peeta slip through, but the book didn't.

I think how the movie handled Peeta sounds similar to what you're trying to do with The Way of the Shield. Peeta didn't slip through--he made active choices that let him survive without killing (Foxface did the same thing, although less successfully). He wasn't lucky; he was clever. So I think pacifism can be done with an active character, but it does require careful thinking through of the scenarios.
(this is Miriam, but I don't have a blogger account, so I'm signing as anonymous)

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

I would argue that the trackerjackers is exactly what I'm talking about in terms of "not actively killing". As presented in the movie, the goal of dropping the hive is to get the Careers to disperse so she can get out of the tree. That Glimmer dies is collateral damage, not intent.

Anonymous said...

It is clearer in the books that Katniss drops the trackerjackers with malice aforethought. The primary motivation is to get the Careers to disperse because she's not bloodthirsty like Clove. But she intends that they will be hurt and is perfectly okay with some dying. I think the movie did the best it could to convey this, but it's a bit harder since it's not in her head.

I just realized that my first comment is contradictory in terms of what I said about Peeta. What I meant is that he did kill in the book, but the movie changed that bit so he didn't. However, it wasn't a deus ex machina type of thing... he didn't have to kill because of the active choices he made. Rue, Foxface, Peeta, Katniss, and Thresh where all playing the same type of game: hide and avoid conflict until you can't. I don't think that's a cop out--I think that's what most kids would do in that situation. It's why the Careers and Gamekeeper interventions are so necessary. (Miriam)