Here we go with the noble sufferer rant. Ooh, goodie.
The noble sufferer—term not actually suggested by me, but by someone else, yet I will seize upon it with glee—is the martyr character. You know the one. It’s not what’s happened to them that makes them teeth-grindingly annoying, it’s their reaction to it. They’re determined to martyr themselves to everything. Their greatest reaction tends to be tears, intermingled with moans about not being worthy to do this or that. Just when everything seems to be going peachy is when the author is about to unleash the THUNDERBOLT OF DOOM. Thunderbolts would be very appropriate, in fact, because this is the kind of heroine who inhabits Gothic castles. I just want the authors to aim their thunderbolts a bit more to the right.
1) Suffering alone does not make a character noble.
If it did, the author couldn’t write about just the noble sufferer character. The peasant families who mostly exist in fantasy to be trampled by the bad guys—or, in noble sufferer fantasies, to give the hero/ine something to cry about—often lose families, limbs, lands, and lives. What does the noble sufferer lose? Well, supposedly her family, but they often turn out to be unworthy of her or not her real family anyway. Supposedly the respect of everybody around her, but then she has the mad magical powers of doom, so everybody is forced to respect her anyway. The reader’s patience, but the author doesn’t care about that.
Repeat after me: Suffering does not encourage grace of soul. If anything, it’s the opposite. It’s suffering characters who have the most excuse for not being paragons of shining perky happiness, because of what’s happened to them. Yet the authors want the readers to adore them anyway. How do they get there? Cut out the middleman. Don’t actually have the character do anything noble. Just tell the reader, over and over again, that she’s noble, noble, noble, noble, noble, nob—
We are sorry. We cannot complete this transmission. The weight of the irony has caused Limyaael’s computer to experience meltdown.
So. Want to make a suffering character noble? She’ll have to do a bit more than suffer.
2) The appropriate response is NOT always tears.
I’m sorry, but I get tired of reading about characters crying. I especially get tired of characters whom the narrative tells me are “feisty” and “high-spirited” and “courageous” bursting into tears every time something goes wrong. You’d think they’d lose their temper, or mourn quietly, or curse, or try to, I know this is the strangest thing you ever heard but bear with me, DO SOMETHING when something goes wrong once in a while. No. Instead, they cry and cry and cry and cry and cry.
Why? Because, of course, they are so noble and doooooomed!
Tears are one of the surest signs of a noble sufferer. The author is skipping any subtler means of showing emotion, any means of individualizing the character, any means of showing us why we should get behind them in their quest to save the world. Instead, have the princess crack and sniffle, and suddenly the reader is supposed to want to give her hugs and chocolate.
Well, I might want to give her hugs and chocolate. I’d also want to know why two characters look at each other after she cries herself to sleep and murmur, “She’s so brave!”
“Yes, she is!”
Why? Tears of compassion or tears of sadness, it really doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. I know that if I were a peasant woman trying to deal with the army just having come by, taken my food, salted my land, raped me, and killed my son, my life would not get much brighter just because the princess came by and cried on my shoulder. If anything, I’d probably feel like, “Fuck, here’s another person I’m supposed to take care of. I thought queens were supposed to take care of their people instead?”
Don’t overuse tears. At some point, you’ll need concrete, and all tears can make is a swamp. And if the character really is one who can’t do anything but cry, leave her at home.
3) Reconsider sacrificing other characters just to help the noble sufferer out.
Wanna hear my favorite example of this? It comes in Flewelling’s The Bone Doll’s Twin. The princess, Tobin, is destined to rule, but her evil uncle would murder her if he found out she was female, so of course the “good guys” kill her twin brother and use magic to put Tobin inside his body. Incidentally, they don’t bother telling her mother about this, so her mother goes mad and abuses Tobin, and the ghost of her brother haunts her.
(Yes. Really. And the narrative insists that these are the good guys all the way, yay!)
Later in the book, Tobin, very much a noble sufferer character—she spends little time doing anything but living in her father’s isolated keep and getting beat upon, yet somehow this will make her a good ruler—is Very Lonely and needs a playmate. One of the original wizards finds her one, a nice innocent boy about her age. Of course, if he ever finds out the big secret about Tobin, he’ll be instantly killed.
So. Let me get this straight. Instead of either telling the nice boy, who seems honorable, about Tobin and trusting him to keep the secret, or telling Tobin and letting her make the choice about who’s going to play the sacrificial lamb, they just drag him in, willy-nilly, to a situation he would never have entered otherwise, and will kill him if he discovers this in any way. All so poor little lonely Tobin can have a playmate.
This is crack. This is noble sufferer crack. This is what happens when the author loses all sense of perspective and sanity and starts making other characters into sacrificial lambs so the noble sufferer can have whatever she wants.
Oh please, gods that I don’t believe in, make the pain go away.
4) There comes a point where drama turns into melodrama.
Tobin’s childhood in the isolated keep is the perfect example. It’s not enough that she thinks she’s a boy, and actually has a boy’s body, and will someday have to take the throne from her “evil” uncle (who doesn’t, oops, seem to be that bad a ruler) and rule in accordance with prophecy. No, let’s give her an abusive, mad mother! And a father who’s so distant and sad about his wife’s madness that he never notices her abusing Tobin, despite living with them in the small, isolated keep, and thus never stops it! And the ghost of her dead brother who pinches her and shoves her into things and breaks her toys! And a sacrificial lamb playmate, to be killed at the appropriate moment, thus creating more “Oh, woe!” moments for Tobin!
Come the fuck on. I mean, it couldn’t even be an evil grandfather or something. No, it has to be an evil uncle, thus treading in the finest trail of fantasy clichés. (Evil Uncles™. For all your usurping needs).
The unlikelier and wilder the circumstances under which the noble sufferer suffers, the further it inches towards melodrama. This does not apply, by the way, if her suffering comes about as the result of the consequences of her own actions, or if she tries to do something to stop it. One trait of the noble sufferer is that shit falls from heaven upon her like a less distinguished variety of rain, and thus it is Not Her Fault. Noble sufferers are the perfect models of what we should all aspire to be: beating their breasts about not being worthy when they actually are worthy; suffering in accordance with things that are not their fault and never change and become more and more unrealistic and are meant solely to invoke pity; becoming perfect through no effort of their own. Perfection isn’t even something they arrive at. They just are that way, from the moment the story begins.
Does this mean that every character who suffers in fantasy is a noble sufferer? No. Does it mean that you should never use dramatic, angsty pasts? No. Does it mean that everything that happens to an abused/suffering/whatever character is their fault? No. But it does mean that you have to learn to look over your darling with a critical eye, and determine if she really is perfect or if you just made her that way.
5) “I am not worthy!” only worked in Wayne’s World.
And even there, it was a stretch.
The main problem when characters say something like this? I don’t believe it. Not for a second. Not for a moment. I don’t believe it any more than I believe a heroine who sobs that she’s ugly, or a hero who thinks he’s dumb. Fantasy authors don’t choose ugly, dumb, unworthy protagonists. They’ll tell you about dumb, ugly, unworthy villains until the gorgons come home, but not protagonists.
You have three options with this, if you really want to use the line:
- You can have your heroine grow slowly into a worthy person, and then her statement about unworthiness in the beginning will be a simple statement of self-knowledge.
- You can have a heroine who really is unworthy and makes a mistake because of it. However, at that point you have to present the mistake as a mistake. Not a “misfortune,” not a “piece of bad luck,” not as an “error in judgment.” All those are little weasel phrases that try to get out of admitting that the heroine is less than perfect. You have to show the bad consequences of the mistake and other people thinking it is one, even if they don’t blame her as such. Then she can grow past it.
- You can have a blunt or sarcastic or cynical character who meets the first cry of martyrdom with some variation on, “Yes, you are.” Then, instead of smacking the character down with a wise old mentor or having the heroine wail at him so that he repents of his ways, have her start arguing out of pure astonishment. This shows that she didn’t mean it, and gets you over the first hump.
Really, reading about martyrs who don’t need to martyr themselves, while other people desperately pat them on the back and reassure them it’s not their fault, is both tiring and tiresome. Pop psychology is a lot more common than people taking responsibility for the cards they’re dealt. Show me some good poker players, not yet another person convinced that she’s going to screw everything up when the reader knows she’s not because the author won’t let her.
You can have characters who do everything a noble sufferer does and aren’t annoying. The trick lies in presenting them as noble for other reasons than having suffered.