So what do you do when a character is powerless? The first thing I tend to do when I’m looking to solve problems in my storylines is to turn to my immediate surroundings. For some reason, and I’m not sure where I got this from (possibly through reflection in the early mornings as I sip my coffee), I started to realize or assume or maybe just consider that all dynamics of story or narratives are in constant mimesis, so…if there is something missing in my story or novel (as is the case now) I start to look for signs and solutions in my daily interactions—in my immediate. I believe I’ll see the same thing, conceptually, happen at some point in the day if I just pay attention.
There is something fascinating to me about bottom dwellers. And as writers we all know the bottom dwellers as meager, meek, powerless little snakes who slither around until they find opportunity. We see this in our everyday environments, whether in our families or circle of friends, and especially at work.
So the other day I was revising a chapter to meet a deadline for a submission of my novel, working title: Uncle Called Him Spider. In this chapter, one of my supporting characters finds herself at an all time low. She is pissed. She has been abused by the power system, and she has been mistreated by coworkers. But her ultimate weakness is she is too empathetic. She understands how the crabs-in-the-barrel-syndrome can pit Native against Native. But at this point in the novel she doesn’t care anymore. She’s on her way out and she’s going to take down whoever she can take down, especially the two men who stole her position at the company.
Because she finds herself in a position of having such little power, I had to ask myself, “How does she fight back?” If she has no power, what can she do? I kept coming up with nothing. I went through a frustrating two week period where I was stuck on revising this chapter (I’m not completely done but I was able to get passed this hump–read on). To top it off, I like this character. Out of all the supporting characters I have to say she is my favorite. I don’t have to tell you writers out there how that can spell disaster when you’re trying to give a character dimensions, angles, alternating sides–aka humanness. In those situations, we tend to protect the characters we like the most. And this time it was no exception.
Then I started to contemplate on my immediate surroundings and circles. I paid attention to the weakest people in the groups I tend to find myself going in and out of (never staunchly a part of any group because to be a conformist would mean clichéd death for an artist). I started to notice a pattern, or a few patterns. One pattern had to do with gossip. We hear gossip all the time. Much of it has to do with tearing someone down in a group so you can make “fast friends.” It’s the monkey equivalent of slinging our own shit. So I noticed people who don’t have power will use gossip as a weapon. Most of the time it’s to increase social standing between all the monkey whoops and hollers. Then I realized people do this to get back at each other too.
Now I didn’t like the idea of my favorite supporting character slinging her own shit, but at this point she had been a saint throughout the novel. I had to dirty her up a little. No, I had to dirty her up a lot. So I had her say some outright lies so the reader might flinch at her actions, but this is her at her tipping point. I felt like I could get away with having her disrupt the status quo by lying about people in power.
In her gossip, she targeted the antagonist of the storyline and the two men who’s presence caused her career to end. Now she didn’t stop at gossip. She did a couple of other things and I’m going to add them briefly here in case your stuck with a similar type of character and need some ideas to think over.
Another tactic she used was her preforming aggression, as in make-believe, like a stage play, the role of aggressor, so she was passively attacking the two men, but what made it a weapon was that this performance was in front of Native community members. So it’s laced with tribal justice, where transparency is the primary method of correcting negative behavior. The larger society would call this “restorative justice,” and is the same conceptually. It’s Native-centric creative tools I use. I am Kiowa and Cherokee.
The other modality I used: curses. This one is not strictly Native, but does fall in line with some of our real life situations. Cursing people or doing “bad medicine” as it’s called has been in Native literature since it’s conception. As far as real life situations, I remember my grandmother “witching” someone she was angry with (this was back when I was about fourteen years old–young), and she got tobacco from a bad medicine man and she smoked it rolled in a cigarette as she stared angrily at the person’s home. So that’s what I had this character do as well (draw from real life my writerly friends).
While the other weapons this character uses are interesting, it’s gossip that I found the most compelling because it is so commonplace. It’s something the reader can relate to and has likely often done themselves. While it makes the character appear to be a bad person, but because of the circumstances, where these two men took her job, more or less, the reader can understand why she would break, and why she would attack the people who set her up for failure and had made her life miserable.
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(Disclaimer: The images in this post do not belong to the author and was borrowed from Flickr and Wikimedia)