Fiction Philosophy: Apathy

>> Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The other day, I was talking about violence, noting that bad guys and good guys might both indulge in violence, even killing/murder, in my fiction, but with distinctions as to what was or wasn't acceptable. But, there's something I often find even harder to justify than murder: apathy.

Often, I find characters far less sympathetic or appealing if they are completely passive, if they stand idly by as bad things happen to others, even though that is a frequent occurrence in real life. If they cower in fear rather than stand up for the "right" thing, I often find myself contemptuous though that is one of the most common reactions to oppression and brutality. Even characters who wander through their stories reacting to or having their decisions made by what happens around them rather than actively shaping or directing their own actions leave me, well, uninterested.

Truth is, I'm more likely to find a principled assassin appealing than such a character. Why? Well, for one thing, the assassin is, for whatever reason, taking a stand, deciding his own fate. I can respect that even if he's not a nice person. But I have limited respect for a character that allows him- or herself to be buffeted along by fate and circumstance without lifting a finger to help himself, help others, even do something that would change his or her fate.

Part of it is that, all too often, such characters take no responsibility for their circumstances. Fate and environment are blamed for all their troubles, and their own unwillingness to do anything to change the situation is completely overlooked. The excuses are legion. "I couldn't make a difference anyway." "I had no choice." "What could I do?" "It wasn't any of my business."

Part of it, too, is that apathy is so human, so common, so prevalent that it is part and parcel of almost every (if not every) horrible wrong that has ever been done. Apathy isn't necessarily evil, which is one reason it's so insidious - the practitioners do not engender hatred so much as contempt and pity - yet it is a vital element in the spread and effectiveness of evil.

Apathy is the ultimate enabler of evil. It is the enemy of change and progress. It is the protector of the predator as it leaves those most weak and vulnerable unshielded. Apathy is the tool of the manipulator because those who refuse to take action are always looking for excuses for their lack of action. It's easier, by far, to dismiss those oppressed or in need by believing they are unworthy (druggies, illegal aliens, lazy, devious, stupid, common, heathens, racially inferior, mentally incompetent, incapable [as women frequently have been called], sly, self-serving - they've all been used) than to take a stand and correct an egregious injustice. The path of least resistance is an ugly one.

So, you won't find many of these types in my books, not as a protagonist or even antagonists. Actually, I try to limit the number of apathetic characters as much as possible because, hey, I don't like them. The characters I'll focus on in my books are people of decision, even if they don't begin that way, who have morals and values and stances, who are willing to pay the price to do what they see is right.

It seems like a small thing, but, when you look at the history of apathy, of the harm it's caused, it's really not so small.


  • Jeff King

    Excellent points... I never gave it that much thought, but see how it could impact the readers connection and will from now on focus on not making this type of mistake in my writing.

  • Darrell B. Nelson

    One problem I have with characters and apathy is I like it when a character isn't out to be the hero or change the world, he just runs into so many things that he finally has to say enough is enough. Unfortunately I've found from getting Beta readers, not just you, that in my writing at least, the first impression of the character sticks so even if they turn into an action hero at the end that's lost so I've given up on that idea for now and having my characters start out as the typical action hero.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Project Savior, there is a difference between being an action hero and being active. I can be a laid back, easy going guy without being a doormat or apathetic. I don't have plan on doing good; perhaps I respond reactively rather than proactively to the events around me, but I respond, I make decisions, I do something. And I have to care. If I care for nothing, well, I'm not a character a reader like me will respond to (though they're out there and have a following - see Elric, for instance).

    There's a difference between the mother who lets her strong-willed forceful husband beat her children and the quiet mother who never starts a fight but manages to bring peace to a family of strong personalities. The first one isn't DOING anything to solve the problem and becomes an accessory by allowing it to happen. The second is doing something, actively doing something, by using her understanding of people to keep them from fighting.

    Gandhi, for instance, was no action hero and, despite the term, passive resistance, he wasn't apathetic. He resisted and that's an action.

    If someone follows an apparent script, without trying to put his own stamp on it, even if he's "acting" or even an action hero, he can still come across as apathetic. You have to care and act on what you care about for it to be meaningful.

    In my opinion.

  • The Mother

    Amen. Apathy is EVIL. Terrifying, dangerous and EVIL.

  • Dr. Cheryl Carvajal

    I agree, too. I think both INTENT and ACTION are needed, though. If a person intends to serve himself, and it ends up doing others good, that doesn't work for me. At the same time, if he wants to do good, but his ACTION is deluded or harmful, unless he comes to realize this in some real way and learn to ACT differently, he's also lost me.

    Characters who DON'T act? I don't have time for them. Who talk all the time about what they would like to do, but never do it? Even more irritating. Quiet, caring acts speak far louder than all the bragging in the world. Then again, the bragging can work to create a foil character or villain. Villains need not be openly evil to be harmful. We see this too often in our real world.

    BTW, just read a book called SUNSHINE, by Robin McKinley. I can't say I loved it, but it might be right up your alley. Lots of sarcasm, and a strong female lead. Think Twilight with none of the teen angst (though I know how much you like teen angst!)...

  • Stephanie Barr

    Agreed, on intent, as well, with the caveat that intent may not be black and white either. Many people plan on doing something for their own selfish sake but, consciously or unconsciously, determine how they do it by the effect on others.
    An unconscious intent or innate inability to hurt others no matter what they feel they "need" to do can still work for me.

    But that's me.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Damn it, Shakespeare, you've given me another idea for a character, one who is determined to be selfish since he's felt like a doormat his whole life, but ends up doing more and more aggressive good as he continues because his innate decency steps in and changes things.

    It's because he's taking action that the effects increase and, in the end, realizes that doing the good he didn't mean to do is what's making him happy.

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