Writing a Bully Character

Let’s get this right out of the way: bullies are horrible, bullying is universal, and writing a bully character is a great way to establish an underdog character. They’re also a very important topic for kids to read about. After all, who doesn’t want to comfort a bullying victim or see a bully change their ways? However, if you’re writing about bullying, you’re not the only one. Far from it. One query recently made me almost fall out of my chair laughing when it read: “Since bullying has become such a big national issue…” (or something close to this sentiment).

writing a bully character, writing about bullying
When you’re writing a bully character, you’re not exempt from all the tips out there on creating complex, multidimensional characters.

Bullying Isn’t a New Issue

First of all, “has become”?! Where has this writer been? Bullying has existed since the dawn of time and, unfortunately and despite the heavy media attention it’s been getting in the last few years, will continue to exist. Kids (and even some adults) need to try out power dynamics, push boundaries, and be bad people in order to figure out how to (we hope) be good people. Often at the expense of others. It’s human nature. And even those who consider themselves universally bullied can be the villain in another even more put-upon kid’s story (as 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon discovered when she went to her high school reunion). It’s a horrible cycle and not even all the authors in the world writing about bullying will make a difference. Sad? Yes. True? I think so.

Writing a Bully Character Who’s True to Reality

So, how do we approach writing about bullying in a way that pays attention to reality? Let me just say, the bullying topic/character/plot in my slush pile is so tired that even a five-shot espresso drink won’t perk it up. Writing a bully character doesn’t mean you’re exempt from all the tips out there on creating multidimensional, complex characters. Especially if they’re the primary antagonist. But most of the bullies I see are invariably large, physically, dull, mentally, and disturbed, emotionally. The girl versions are always mean, pretty, and popular. The second an aspiring writer begins to weave a school scene, I know I’m going to invariably meet a) the quirky best friend and b) the bully, who slams around the hallway, slamming people in to lockers.

Bullies Aren’t Obligatory

Think differently about writing a bully character (especially their motives and actions) and about your bullying scenes. And don’t feel like you need to include the obligatory bully/bullying dynamic in your story just because it’s popular or realistic. Characters you force yourself to write are the flattest of all to read. If you want to truly go there and portray bullying, you need to do more research into what actually goes on in today’s halls, relay it unflinchingly, and try not to force a candy-coated resolution at the end. And make your bullies real people who can, on a certain level, command their own sympathy from the reader.

If you manage this, you’ll be far ahead of the pack. I, for one, would actually like to read a complex bully character and a realistic bullying scenario. Until I find one, query letters promising to address this “recent” epidemic most often get an eyeroll from me because there is no bigger stereotype in the schoolyard canon.

When you hire me as your children’s book editor, we’ll create a customized plan to help you achieve your writing goals. If you’re struggling with fleshing out your characters, I’ll give you actionable tips to make them more authentic and complex.

10 Replies to “Writing a Bully Character”

  1. I think a good example of a recent complex bully character is in Scrawl by Mark Shulman.

  2. Bullies have been written about in kidlit long long before the media latched on to the bullying issue.

  3. Once again, great thoughts. I’m so excited for your Writing Irresistible Kidlit book. I pre-ordered one for me and one for all my writing friends for Christmas!

  4. As far as I’m concerned, all bullying novels begin and end with, ‘Blubber’ by Judy Blume. It’s told from the POV of the one of the bullies. It’s notable for pointing out that the ‘laugh it off’ platitude is stupid advice. Assault and abuse are not funny.

  5. But what if the bully is a vampire, and it’s a school for supernatural kids? THAT’s gotta be new, right?

  6. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Thanks for being so commonsensical and non-hysterical about this; this subject is such a sacred cow recently that it’s getting ridiculous. I’ve always had a policy of only bringing this into a story if it’s relevant and never emphasizing helplessness for pathos points-Mark Petrie in Stephen King’s Salems Lot is the best benchmark I know of-the one place it comes up in the book I’m shopping around now is a black violin player who ties a couple of football players into a knot (he’s also an aikido expert) for calling him a gaylord oreo-point made fast and in funny fashion, and it’s overwith. Unfortunately I think a lot of gatekeepers (present company excepted, of course) seem to be more interested in Making A Statement than in presenting books kids might want to actually buy and read, probably reasoning that if enough get force-fed kaopectate lattes, they might actually start liking them……………..

  7. Robin Fowler says:

    It may well be a popular topic – then and now – but it’s relevant in all its manifestations in and out of school hallways. I agree with the need for more creativity. Susin Nielsen’s Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen takes an unusual look at bullying in its extreme. Solid research, plenty of humour, and layers of complexity.

  8. As dear ol’ Freud would argue — the basic morals and values of teenagers are already formed — thus, the anti-bullying messages are most effective when targeted at the early readers, less likely to be set in their ways. These messages are imperative — but, unfortunately, many of the books written with such themes are geared for young adults — who care more about their peers than they do about an author’s abstract voice. The impact of anti-bullying campaigns and such reading material is far greater when focused on a Kindergarten student rather than a high-schooler.

  9. Anonomous says:

    If you have heard of the show by Disney “the owl house”, I’m sure that you’ve seen that the character Amity Blight, is a very good representation of a bullie.

  10. Barker Gabriel says:

    I find the thought of bullying being a popular topic hard to swallow. Yes, I have created such a character, made by a need for vengeance; but while they are an integral part of the story, they are incidental to the other players.
    If I can add my other thoughts: in that, sadly, bullying shall never go away, while we should decry all forms and try to educate the bully to steer them on another course, anti-bullying is somewhat of a misnomer in that we fight fire with fire and never resolve the issue, or approach the subject in a manner that bullies loathe and use anyhow to abuse their victims. I do not claim to know of another way it should be approached; but as I see it, if a bully’s traits are shown to them and one by one resolved, I feel it would create other issues to tackle and so the cycle will go on. But if are to tackle the issue fully, should we not invite scorn at our own doorstep first?

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