Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at

Character Stereotypes: The Victim

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,
but that they are incomplete.

—Chimamanda Adichie

The idea for this series came from a talk Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie did entitled The Dangers of a Single Story (i.e., stereotype)( She told of how she had a single story of the British based on what she had read in books. She then experienced the flipside of stereotyping when she came to America for college. Her roommate, having been exposed to only Western literature, believed Africans to be an uneducated tribal people, unfamiliar with modern technologies.

The moral of Adichie’s talk was this: What we write impacts and influences readers. Her main intent was to warn of the dangers of cultural stereotyping, but I want to expound on fictional character stereotyping.

An overwhelming 75 percent of responders on my character stereotype survey indicated they had written a victim into one of their manuscripts, so that’s the first stereotype I’ll go over. To see the vast spectrum this stereotype can cover, I’ll start with Webster’s definition.

Main Entry: vic•tim
Pronunciation: \ˈvik-təm\
Function: noun

1 : one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent: as a (1) : one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions (2) : one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment b : one that is tricked or duped

Think about everything that commonly finds a way into our fiction that falls under that definition: rape, molestation, neglect, robbery, mugging, kidnapping, being taken hostage, terrorist attack, torture, military combat, incarceration as a prisoner of war or in a concentration camp, natural/manmade disasters, severe automobile accidents, carjacking, being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, or seeing a dead body/body parts. All of these events can be learned about, directly experienced, or indirectly witnessed.

I lifted the above list right out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual under the description for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not all “victims” have PTSD, but it’s a good disorder to know about in order to inflict our victimized characters with realistic, varying emotional hurdles.

Based on the four most descriptive clinical symptoms for PTSD, I’ll offer a couple overdone and underused scenarios for you to consider for your protagonists.

1) The character has to go through something awful—see above—and respond with intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

Clichéd: Usually fictional victims directly experience a horrible past event; they react with screaming, panic attacks, or “freezing” in place.

Creative: A person can have PTSD simply by seeing something happen to someone else. They can also learn about something awful over the phone and still experience PTSD. Not everyone experiences fear or horror the same way. What if your character laughed nervously when afraid or vomited when horrified?

2) The character has to reexperience the traumatic event in some way.

Clichéd: The character has a nightmare and wakes up covered in sweat; character suffers from intense flashbacks.

Creative: Have the character recollect during the day—not just daydreams—maybe a persistent image comes to them over and over, or a phrase they heard during the traumatic event becomes an internal mantra. What if your heroine “phased out” while she reexperiences her trauma, almost like it was happening in real time?

3) The character would persistently avoid any reminder of the trauma.

Clichéd: Woman raped in an elevator can’t go inside an elevator; won’t talk about what happened with anyone, has a “blank mind” when it comes to remembering certain aspects of the trauma (as if the brain suppressed the memory).

Creative: A character withdraws from a previous activity in which they were highly involved; the character feels unable to love anymore or feel anything again; the character feels he won’t live a normal life span (i.e., get married, have children, have a career), which could lead to dropping out of college, breaking up with a fiancé, etc.

4) The character would experience a heightened sense of arousal.

Clichéd: The hero can’t sleep through the night without waking, or can’t fall asleep; a heroine is always looking over her shoulder in a paranoid fashion.

Creative: How about going with some anger or irritability (especially in children)? Difficulty in concentrating? This might not seem creative in the traditional sense of the word, but it’s less used than the above and still fits the symptom description.

I want to address your antagonists before I close. Protagonists aren’t the only ones to have experiences that scar them. Bad guys do too, and there is some indication that people who were victims in childhood grow up to be victimizers as adults. For example, definitive research reveals that abused children have a high correlation with becoming adult abusers.

One way to let the reader become sympathetic to the bad guy’s plight is to work in a backstory that would make Job look like he got off easy. Readers can forgive a bad guy for a lot when they know he is operating with an unhealed wound. Mary Connealy has one a great example of a sympathetic villain in her book Montana Rose. Her bad guy was creepy, delusional, and generally insane—but his dad was so abusive and belligerent that you pity him rather than wrinkle your nose in distaste.

I hope this article has given you some concrete methods to vary the clichéd victim role in your manuscripts!


The Character Thrapist