Life of an Innocent Bystander

Independence Day

Do we really consider innocent bystanders when we’re writing action or disaster scenes that take place in residential areas?  I mean, we know they’re there and write them in to show the carnage.  Maybe we purposely put one in a spot for the hero’s attack to hit them by accident and cause an inner conflict.  Some are even there to be rescued and stay alive to be the cheering section afterwards.  Yet, it really does feel like we take these nameless characters for granted at times.  They have lives, right?  Well, I guess they don’t if we didn’t give them one.

This post is more about the mentality of an innocent bystander than how to use them because they’re fairly simple.  Put in place of danger or in the background and utilize when bodies, screams, chaos, or peanut gallery noises are needed.  Not sure if you would categorize people standing around the main characters kissing as innocent bystanders, but I’m sure some of them would feel awkward.  It isn’t like we would know since fiction doesn’t go into their minds.  Once a character gets named and develops beyond the level of a potted plant, they get listed as tertiary or secondary cast.  Innocent bystanders are those who are in the area during an event and aren’t supposed to be involved, but get dragged in by accident.

Now, I can say I’m 100% right on what I said before.  It’s entirely possible to write a story that focuses on a character that ends up being an innocent bystander.  At least, I think they can start that way, but they would need to remain at the whim of the situation to retain that title.  A person that tries to influence the events is no longer standing by and could also lose their innocence.  So, this is something that can easily be shed for most genres if the author wants.  It would be interesting to see a story from the perspective of someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but has no control.  I could see it work for a short story or micro-fiction.  A lengthy novel might be fairly difficult.

Now, I did run into several quotes that basically stated that innocent bystanders aren’t really a thing.  The idea is that nobody is really innocent or that they had to be in that area for a reason.  I thought it pertained to destiny and fate, but mostly it seemed like it was a lack of empathy.  People end up in these situations every day and some are terrified of that moment because it rarely ends well.  Ever hear of an innocent bystander winning the lottery?  Not really.  They’re usually victims of violence and misfortune.  This might be another reason authors don’t put much thought into them because getting connected to what could be literary fodder doesn’t make a lot of sense.

A sudden idea just popped in my head too.  It’s possible that we don’t really think much of fictional innocent bystanders because of the real world use.  As stated, it’s rarely used as a positive when a real disaster happens.  Typically, the innocent bystanders are those hurt, killed, and/or traumatized by whatever occurred.  It’s painful to hear about when you consider the loss of life and, for some people, it can be difficult to wrap one’s head around the whole thing.  At some level, we like there to be order and sense in our world, but bad luck or negative fate counter that desire.  Many consider that it could be them that get labeled innocent bystanders, which makes the term and role one of a helpless, unaware victim.  That’s a mentality that is difficult and exhausting to work with when writing a story.

So, have you ever considered the role or existence of innocent bystanders in fiction?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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14 Responses to Life of an Innocent Bystander

  1. Interesting question, Charles. Have I ever considered innocent bystanders in my fiction? I have built an entire plot around innocent bystanders being used as ways to force the protagonist to do the antagonist’s bidding. I also engaged in the intellectual argument between the protagonist and antagonist as to what constitutes an innocent bystander. You are right it is a very exhausting to develop the arguments and determine the status of innocence. A great subject today.


  2. L. Marie says:

    You brought up an interesting topic. I can’t help thinking about a situation I’m writing about in which a man who sets out on a path of revenge against his own people for the way they treated him. He kills a lot of people because he sees everyone as culpable. For him, there are no innocent bystanders. Well, except for one person. So when he burns two villages, that’s his mindset. I don’t go into the lives of the people there much, because I already have a ton of characters I’m following.


  3. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this interesting post on the life of the innocent bystander in fiction from Charles Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere blog


  4. Personally, I kind of hate the “no one is innocent” riff. It implies a judgement, doesn’t it? That they somehow deserve to be hit by flying debris, or whatever. I think the bystanders are “innocent” because they aren’t involved in the dangerous/frightening situation until it bursts upon them. It isn’t their battle or romance. They’re just there.

    Specifically in disaster stories, it seems like the bystander’s purpose is to create pathos in how suddenly lives can be threatened. We feel their struggle to escape from whatever it is, and do pull for heroes to save as many as possible.


  5. Pingback: Writing Links 1/15/18 – Where Genres Collide

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