Whenever you write a character who deals in violence, there is a threat that they will become a bully. This is a problem that every writer faces because we control the events of a narrative and thus the outcome of every fight. Even an author with the best of intentions can create a bully unintentionally and that’s a problem. In real life, it is all too easy to become a bully, whether that bully is emotional, intellectual, or physical is ultimately irrelevant. Your character doesn’t ever need to throw a punch and they can still end up one.
Remember, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a bully as your setting’s protagonist. When done well, bully characters like Vic Mackie from The Shield are deeply relateable and complex. The problem comes when an author does not realize that they have created one and with the way Hollywood structures its films these days and the general attitude towards violence, a bully can be created all too easily. So, let’s talk about the ways bully characters are created and how to avoid them.
What is a bully?
A bully is someone who uses violence or the threat of violence to get what they want. This violence can be physical, emotional, or psychological. Emotional and intellectual violence often take the form of shame or shaming, a character who uses their snark or intellect to abuse others or shame them into shutting up is a bully.
How does one create a bully?
On a psychological level, a bully is created through fear. They mask their own fear with anger, so when they are pushed to feel afraid they react violently. The more terrified they are, the harder they lash out.
The problem with a bully is that they are not in control, instead of facing their fears they avoid them, run from them, or try to force reality to conform to a state where they won’t have to deal with them usually through the abuse of others. A bully cannot allow themselves to be vulnerable or the sham of the power they’ve created will be exposed. A bully’s power is consensual. They have power because they are given it, not because they take it. A bully convinces someone to give them their power through fear, it’s just that it’s their own fear that they are projecting onto others and not the fears of the individual in question.
In a written work, the protagonist may become a bully not just because of their own fears but by double jeopardy, they could be representing the author’s. This is how they are easy to create, especially when the character is the “better version” of the author or a wish fulfillment character who has been allowed to run rampant.
A bully can happen when an author cannot handle being the butt of the joke, when they have a fight with or present an idea they believe in inside their book without presenting a counter argument or giving the other characters the opportunity to fight back. We are at risk to creating a bully when we say: “It’s going to be this way because I said so” and never give the other characters a chance at the spotlight. If your characters are winning by means of humiliation then they may be a bully. If they have the attitude of “see how much better I am than you”, again, they may indeed be a bully.
It’s easy to accidentally create bullies in our written worlds because in the end, the author controls everything. Characters cannot respond in ways that the author doesn’t anticipate or allow and when the variables are all too easy to control it becomes easy to win.
A bully can be created when we fail to give voice to our secondary characters. A bully can be created when the author plays favorites. A bully can be created when the writer dictates the state of the setting, if you do not allow for the opportunity of variables and for the unexpected to occur, and plan for that unexpected state, or even allow your characters to believe that they may in fact lose then we double the possibility that a bully has already appeared in your work. They are most likely on the winning side.
How do you avoid the bully?
The answer is simple, but also hard. As authors, we put a great deal of stock in our characters, we feel what they feel and in some ways live their vicariously through our imaginations. The greater the depths of emotion we can pull from ourselves then the more real they are. The trade off, of course, is that when they lose we feel it. If they are mocked, we may feel humiliated. If one of the problems they encounter runs up against the authors fears, then a bully may be created on accident by the virtue of the author not wishing to face their own fears and force the reality they’ve created to conform to what they want.
The problem with that, of course, as much as our writing is a fiction and fantasy, it must also reflect aspects of the real world and real human emotion. We write because we have something to say and a story to tell, a story that does not jive with the reality of it’s setting is one that leaves a reader feeling unfulfilled. We must justify everything our characters do and many of the problems we face in our world are ones that they will also face in theirs.
So, let your character lose. Force them to face the consequences of their actions. Allow other characters to disagree with them without them being evil. It doesn’t matter the reason why your character did what they did, those reasons may not matter to the farmer whose property was destroyed by the rampaging golem or the surviving priest from the church that was burned down to save a town from a pesky demon. The family of the possessed may not be grateful that your protagonist killed their child. Allow characters to judge your protagonist by what they see in front of them and on the merit of what they know of the protagonists’ actions. Actions can have unintended consequences, don’t be afraid to address them and allow your protagonist to shoulder the appropriate blame (or inappropriate, in some cases).
Don’t be afraid to call them out for what they do. Acknowledge their flaws. Let them make mistakes and be wrong, even when it’s critical. Every character must earn their happy ending and in most cases we actually decide their fates when we are putting them together in the pre-planning stages before a story ever gets off the ground.
Remember, violence always has consequences and those consequences are often unpleasant. A character who participates in acts of violence will be changed by them and the reasons why they participate will not necessarily change how other people around them will see them. Those reasons are important for how they live with themselves, other characters will always have their own reasons. Also, allow other characters to make up their own minds.
A character can become a bully, even when they are bullied themselves.
My two cents,