Q&A: Pacifism

Are pacifist characters (or those who can fight but don’t wish to kill anyone, directly or indirectly) always fated to die in war or situations where people are trying to kill them? Or, a better question, do they always have to learn to fight/kill in the end? I’ve seen a few shows where the character who doesn’t want to kill is forced to in order to live and I wondered if there was another way to handle that kind of character arc in a way that is interesting and affirms their pacifism.

They’re not anymore doomed than anyone else in a warzone.

The thing about an individual in a war zone: you cannot solve the war through violence. You really can’t even ensure your own safety through violence. Violence becomes a tool to ensure temporary safety for yourself or others, but it’s not a permanent solution, and it’s not the only option. In most cases, it’s not even a good option, simply the most obvious. Your character can’t fight off a squad of armed soldiers by themselves. Violence, in that context, is a trap. To quote Obi-Wan, “you can’t win, but there are alternatives to fighting.”

Obviously, if your character is a soldier, things are going to be a little different. They’re expected to fight and kill their enemies, and could face real consequences for not doing their job. This doesn’t mean there’s no place for stories about a pacifistic soldier, (there are stories on this subject) but, it will require more creativity. This could be someone in a support role, like a medic or chaplain, or it could be a “conscientious objector,” which would be viewed as cowardice or dereliction of duty by many of their peers.

Ironically, if you want a show about characters in a war who are unwilling to fight, MASH is not a bad reference.

Characters, much like real people, hold convictions. They have beliefs or rules that they follow as a personal code. That’s true to life, real people do the same thing. Pacifism is one of these things, and many people do embrace it to some degree.

With that in mind, there’s three different facets you need to remember. These apply for characters, as well as real people. There’s who your character is, there’s who your character tells other people they are, and there’s who your character tells themselves they are.

The first should be self-explanatory. Characters exist; their experiences (should) shape who they are, and what they’re willing to do.

The second is similar, and should familiar from your life: People will tell you who they are. People lie; intentionally or not, who someone says they are may not completely mesh with who they actually are. This can be malicious, or unintentional. People misrepresent who they are all the time. Some of this is verbal, some of it’s body language, some is aesthetic.

The third is also something that happens, and we’ve all probably experienced it to some degree: the person you think you are doesn’t quite match to the person you are. This isn’t (necessarily) a personal failing. In its most inoffensive form, there’s an idealized version of ourselves that we strive to be, and the reality doesn’t always reach those goals. Conversely, someone can be their own worst critic; no one knows your failings better than you; and some people flagellate themselves over the smallest mistakes.

Picking over the distinction between who someone sees themselves as, and who they actually are, can be a goldmine for dramatic material. There’s a lot to work with when you take a character and force them to confront themselves. This works in either direction.

I’m bringing this up because the convictions you say you hold may not be the ones you do hold. They may not be as strong as you believe. So, when you say, “I’d never harm another human being,” that’s a valid statement, but it can also be a difficult one to uphold. When you put a character in a situation that really tests that conviction, it’s possible that their pacifism was conditional. It wasn’t, really, “I’d never kill someone,” it was, “I’d never kill someone except to save another life,” or, “I’d never kill, unless they harmed me or someone I cared about.” This can provide solid fodder for forcing that character to confront themselves, and come to a realization about who they really are. However, many writers use that as an excuse to outright jettison an inconvenient character trait, or as a “one-off” event that won’t be repeated, without provoking any self-reflection from that character.

Self-confrontation can be very difficult to write. It requires that you, as the author, has a solid grasp on the discrepancies in how your character views themselves, what they’ve exposed about themselves, and how that affects their self-identification. This not stuff you can just fake through, you need to do some serious thinking before writing it. (Or, at least, before rewriting it. No one’s rough draft is perfect, and stumbling through this stuff in early drafts is entirely forgivable.)

There’s another, very specific, variant of this scenario. The “pacifist,” isn’t, they don’t (intentionally) present themselves as one, they simply avoid violence as much as possible. The reveal later is that they’re actually hyper-competent, and have been seeking to avoid, or minimize, violence up to that point. There’s, actually, some real world validity to this as well.

If you have experience with violence, you’ll learn this stuff is extremely unpleasant, and violence does have a way of spiraling out of control. Secondary, and tertiary consequences are a thing, and someone who’s lived this could be much more reticent about escalating a fight when the other people around them will pay. If you don’t have the context for who someone is, that could be mistaken for pacifism.

While I’m hesitant to recommend it, a good example of a characters misidentifying someone as a conditional pacifist (of the, “I don’t use guns,” flavor) is The Rundown (2003). Dwayne Johnson’s character is unwilling to carry or use guns. However, every time he sees one, you get an early 2000s effects shot zooming in on the thing. Turns out (and this isn’t really a spoiler, because of context), he really does know what he’s doing with them. He’s unwilling to use them when he has other options because of the harm they cause. This isn’t a good movie, or particularly well written, but is an enjoyable action flick, and it does illustrate an example where that particular take on “pacifism” is done well.

A character can be a pacifist for purely pragmatic reasons. For example: if you have a thief, where violence will draw unwanted attention to their work, and make their job harder, they’re going to do what they can to avoid that. In cases like this, they’ll break their “pacifism” the moment it become a liability, and move back to it once the need has passed. This can be a very complex example, because it’s not based in some deeper philosophy, even if it could be mistaken for one.

So, can you write a character who really is a pacifist because they genuinely believe it and sticks to those beliefs? Yes, you can. It may require a lot of creativity at times, but it’s absolutely doable. There’s a lot of attention to characters where they present a belief, but don’t really hold to it. This is a cynical view of humanity. In realizing that not everyone is exactly who they say they are, the author has stepped back and said, “people suck.” Truth is, some people really can stick to their convictions. Being unwilling willing to engage in violence simply means finding solutions that don’t end in a bloodbath. This can be someone who’s trying to rebuild in an occupied city. It can be a religious leader who is willing to die for their beliefs before they’ll take another life. It could be a doctor who takes their Hippocratic oath very seriously.

There is nothing wrong with a person who looks at the world and says, “there’s too much violence and misery, I’m not going to add to it,” and try to make things better. That requires a lot of personal strength. It can be exhausting, particularly if the people around them are committed to inflicting further harm on one another. All of this tests their convictions. Some will fail, others will not. There’s a lot of potential material in picking your characters apart and, sometimes, realizing they were stronger than they knew.

-Starke

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