*I DID catch a cold at TVIW, though to be fair I blame the bizarre airplane stuff on the way back which meant no regular meals, no regular thyroid-pill taking, and “fun” temperature variations. Anyway, I’m much better today and I have a ton to do, and hey, this post seems interesting (and I have no memory of writing it.) – SAH*
An Affair of Honor a blast from the past from April 24 2012
Lately I’ve been thinking about honor. Maybe because I spent the last couple of months mulling over the musketeers. Maybe because I’ve gone back to a regency-reading jag as I work on things as far from regency as possible.
Honor has got a bad rep lately. It’s been dragged through the mud, and its garments are draggled. Association of its names with such egregious ideas as “honor killings” has done it no good.
It’s particularly unjust since honor killings are more shame-killings. I grew up in a culture that still shows a lot of Arab influence, (well, they were there almost as long as the Romans, you know?) and I almost understand honor killings – if I squint and look sideways. I was, after all, raised in a village (so like Miss Marple I’ve seen all there is to see of human wickedness.) Of course Portuguese – at least civilized ones – don’t honor-kill their daughters. But we had a case in the village where a father shaved his daughter’s head because she was talking to a strange boy. And even with my family’s rather odd behavior, since we were all readers and a fair number of us engaged in creative work, I came across that “how could you talk to him when you were alone in the house? What will people think? You have shamed us all.” I came across it more than once, because I have trouble wrapping my mind across the nonsensical. And to me – particularly when this started, when I was about eight – seeing a little friend who happened to be a boy was no different from seeing a little friend who happened to be a girl.
But the overwrought minds of village spinsters and old women looked at this the way “enlightened” militant “feminists” do. Like the one who accused my nine year old of sexual harassment for touching a girl’s behind while trying to get her attention. (He didn’t fondle her. He reached through a crowd and poked her, to ask if she wanted to play a space exploration game.) If you’re a male you have lust and evil on your mind, and any woman allowing you near has lost her virtue. (They must live MUCH more interesting lives than I do.)
Anyway, honor viewed that way is more what the public thinks of you and what you allow the public to know. You can lose your honor through all sorts of stupid things that have nothing to do with what is in your heart and mind. You can be “disgraced” the way a regency maiden was disgraced because she tripped in public and fell across a gentleman, and didn’t immediately faint or whatever. (Well, at least in regency romances. I believe true society had more leniency. I mean, even in the village, even with my eccentric behavior and the fact I wore shorts outside the house – oh, the humanity! – only half the people considered me a slut.)
We find this in Shakespeare too. “I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.”
This type of honor is fun, of course. Well, fun to write about. It allows you to get your characters in all sorts of nonsensical situations. It is a good stand by for making your character marry someone she hates, for instance. Or for making your male character fight a stupid duel. Since we sometimes require non-brain-damaged characters to act like idiots, this type of honor can be a good tool.
But the honor I want to talk about isn’t that.
It’s not the external, being paid homage, being rendered honor. It’s the internal honor, in the secret of your heart, in the center of your being.
To explain it: we all live our lives by certain principles. Yes, even those you think have no principles have stuff they live by, even if it’s just “look out for number one.”
This is very obvious in fiction, because, of course, the characters live only on the page, and their characteristics stand in obvious relief. Characters live by some principles. Athena’s in Darkship Thieves, for the longest time, is “survive” but she does have others, which come to the fore when tested. Things like “I will not return kindness with evil.” And of course “I will not abandon those who looked after me.” (Kit.) This is even more true of Kyrie in the shifter books, whose internal principle is “look after those who can’t look after themselves. Not because they’re good, or deserve looking after, but because they can’t.”
(Writers live by some principles, too. For instance, my refusing to write an autobiography, in which I’d have to tell a lot of lies to protect OTHER PEOPLE’s secrets might have cost me promo and a “dahling of literary establishment” career, but it was my internal principle NOT to step on family and friends on the way to success. To do it would have broken me, and made it impossible for me to be me. Break that barrier, and nothing stands between me and shooting people who annoy me. Me as me stops existing.)
Here’s the thing – it’s not that you can’t have a character break one of their inner principles. You can, but then all hell should break lose internally as well as externally. And that type of principle, inner principle, can only be broken if it’s either only partially broken, or if it’s something the character can convince him/herself is an exception. Say, Kyrie COULD leave someone to starve in the dark. BUT that person had better be a danger to the other people she feels she must protect. (And even then, frankly, she’d be more likely to kill them cleanly.)
The reason I’m bringing this up is victimhood. In this case the treatment of victimhood in books. What do I mean by that?
When you lose sense of an internal honor, a moral code, a guiding principle, you tend to misunderstand things like Kyrie’s animating period of “look after those who can’t,” which is one of the animating principles of western civilization. Instead of its being “look after those who can’t, because you owe it to yourself as a human being” you see it as “look after those who can’t because… victims are special.”
I’m getting very tired of seeing this in books written in the last thirty years or so. People who are downtrodden are some sort of saints – magical, not really human. They don’t need anything else to make them magnificent – just that someone be mean to them. The meaner someone is, the more “saintly” the character is treated as – even if the reader can tell he or she is in fact the twit of the universe.
Let me make it clear for those of you short on understanding: the reason Cinderella deserved the prince was NOT because her step sisters were mean to her, but because she was beautiful and sweet. The sisters are on their own course and earn their own doom. HER job was to keep her internal honor, and it is that which earns her the prince. (And please let’s not argue about older versions, okay – I’m talking about it as it’s known.)
Harry Potter is not the main character because he was mistreated, but because he was the boy who lived. The mistreatment which reaches almost comic proportions is an (effective) attention getting device, but it is not how Harry Potter earns his position in the world.
If your character is repulsive or totally amorphous, that will show through the victimhood, and make the reader – this reader at least – gag. More than that, while you might make us root for the underdog – it’s almost a reflex – if the underdog doesn’t prove himself, and is always and perpetually the victim, the story becomes an exercise in sado masochism, and will give off a “sick” feeling. You will also be contributing to moral confusion that is already too prevalent.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t torture your character (look, if you read the beginning of A Few Good Men) you’ll understand why that’s funny coming from me.
I’m saying you should still develop your character after that and make him/her grow. Or of course, make him a terrible person, if he/she is the villain. I mean, why can’t a victim be the villain? Sometimes the poor bastard in the dungeons DID do enough to deserve it. (Er… not in AFGM, by and large. Oh, there’s stuff never talked about but visible between the lines that probably would have earned him a spanking, but not dungeons. THAT was real politik at work, I think.) Or perhaps he’s still a twit who needs to grow out of what took him there. Even if punishment was excessive.
I’m tired of the idea that victim = virtue. We’re starting to see it seep into politics with the idea that groups who have been excluded have some sort of extra special specialness. You know that isn’t true. They’re human. We’re all human. I do not approve of people being excluded or looked down on for color of skin or other irrelevant traits, (or even relevant. There’s more to character than intelligence, for instance) but I also don’t approve of their being sanctified because they were excluded and/or victimized.
“But I was put down” is not a claim to heroism. “But I was put down and achieved something nonetheless” IS.
So, in the end, it’s the internal honor that counts – at least for me, and by and large in life – and what the old biddies in the village think… not so much. And if the biddies are the readers in the global village, enough of them will get disgusted with the idea that victim means virtuous. Also, you’ll be contributing to insanity in society at large.
Make your characters (and as much as you can, yourself) persons (worthy of) honor. We’ll all win by it.