Joe is the worst. Nobody likes him, not even the so-called friends he teams up with at school, filling other students with terror. He's sarcastic, nasty, and a bit of a racist, and especially anti-Semitic. Over-all jerk.

When some of the other kids plan a boat outing just for the kids with Jewish ancestry, he sneaks on board and hides. And crud ends up stranded in Ancient Egypt with them.

My critique group tells me that I've done a good job setting him up with all of the above. It's obvious that the other kids can't stand him and that he's not too keen on them either. In my first chapter with him as a viewpoint character, he generally mentions hitting other kids, but we haven't seen him be violent.

In the school scenes before the time travel, everyone dreads seeing the 3 bully boys. They derail conversations and are overall jerks. But I also want kids to fear them, especially the younger kids (ages 8-11-ish...the school is K-8...meaning ages 5-15, the years before high school).

When Joe's in Egypt, everyone from modern times gives him a wide berth. But not wide enough that they're safe from his words. They just want to be safe from his fists (or feet or whatever). Turns out Joe has a soft spot for toddlers and befriends the time-traveling 2 year old. I want her siblings to be genuinely fearful at first that he might harm her.

Once Joe is in Egypt he discovers he has an opportunity for a fresh start. The local adults respect him because he works hard (he likes physical work, not school). He also makes his first real friend. He's not going to screw this up. He's still somewhat mean and definitely sarcastic, but not outright violent.

I don't want to resort to the trope of bully walks quickly down the school hallway, (not so) randomly shoving kids hard into lockers. That may be what movie and TV makers think is necessary but it's not really how school violence happens. It also takes very little. One quick painful episode a month is enough to traumatize a bully's victim (especially if the timing and action is random).

How do I show that the bully trio, including Joe, engage in physical bullying without it rising to the level of adults or police intervening or TV stereotypes about bullying? But enough that smaller kids are legitimately afraid. Small amounts could be in Egypt.

Note: The kids come from a small town (one primary school, one secondary school) in rural Arizona, USA. The year is 1995, so no cyber-bullying, social media, etc. Bullying isn't completely ignored like it was in my day but awareness of it among adults is meh, not like today.

6 Answers 6


When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot, and I don't usually see accurate depictions of bullying in the media. The bullying I suffered was mostly verbal, but some was physical. What adults don't really understand about physical bullying is that it's more about physical intimidation than actual fist-to-face contact.

A lot of the physical bullying composed of little things--sharply flicking me in the back of the neck, smacking the back of my head, inconspicuously tripping me--coupled with very simple intimidation tactics, like hovering over me and making me shrink down so that the bully was larger than I was. The intimidation was the real motivator for me to do what the bully wanted, because I was never actually beat up.

It's very easy to portray Joe as someone who mostly relies on intimidation, because at that young age, that's what most kids do. When it comes down to it, Joe might not have the guts to actually whale on someone like he threatens to do, and he might think of himself as a coward, which adds to his insecurities, which feeds his bullying, brutish nature.

  • 11
    Thanks. I find your specific examples really helpful. The media has a tendency to call actual assault "bullying" which is really irritating. Lots of people say bully to mean everything from "saying one mean thing once" to "putting someone in the hospital." I reject both extremes. What I'm going for is what you describe. Joe certainly would beat someone up if he felt the need, but he either rarely does or never has (I'm not sure yet). It's those small things like a flick on the back of the neck that are more realistic. Bullying is about a pattern, not an event.
    – Cyn
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 16:59
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    @Cyn: "Bullying is about a pattern, not an event." => Indeed. And it's notable that it may never even come to actual physical contact. The threat of either being beaten, humiliated, rejected, etc... is what keeps the victim from rebelling against the oppression of the bully, but said oppression can manifest as purely verbal (belittlement, insults, ...), as exploitation (asking for money/services), ... as long as the bully has enough clout. Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 17:33
  • @MatthieuM. Nodding. In my experience, the bully (or the abuser in other cases) needs to get physical once. Someone can be the victim or see it happen. Then all the threats can be "this can happen again."
    – Cyn
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 17:35
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    @Cyn: I disagree. Boys usually use physical threats, certainly, however girls can be very effective bullies without ever getting physical. Think about the typical "head cheerleader", with her crowd of sycophants: no girl want to antagonize her and risk the wrath of the group and all the rumors, jokes, silly names, etc... that will cause the rest of the school to snicker at them for a week or month. Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 17:40
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    @MatthieuM. Girls can and do get physical. It may not be "beating up." But lifting skirts, pulling hair, ripping/destroying belongings, pinching arms, kicking shins, throwing the ball too hard in gym/recess, etc. But yes, there are bullies who are purely hands off.
    – Cyn
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 18:00

It doesn't need to be much.

Being a bully doens't actually mean that everyday of school you are pushing people into lockers, smoking cigarettes in the bathroom and carving death threaths on school desks. While those things surely give the right impression, they are not necessarily the norm.

Reputation and attitude do the trick.

Having a reputation for being dangerous, unruly, and violent actually goes a long way; consider that it's way easier to impress kids rather than impress an adult. A 14yo smoking just outside school ground may appear as doing something cool and rebellious to a fellow teenager, but it probably won't impress an adult. For the same reason, having been in a fight once or twice in a semester may not be a big deal per-se, but may help building a fearful reputation, considering how those kind of stories tend to inflate. So, it's not about punching people everyday.

Attitude is the other key component. Again, consider this through the eyes of his fellow teenager or younger kids. A bully will seem strong, imposing, and often provoke fear in his victims. Who are his victims, again? You can have the cliché bully that hunts on the perceived weak and has a preferred target. This does certainly happen, but again it doesn't have to be the case. Some bullies may just hit occasionally on random targets. Some are triggered by very specific conditions.

So, for a younger kid to be scared of a bully you wouldn't even need them to be hitting them. Bullies can be bullies just by placing mean jokes and snarky comments at the most appropriate time. A lot of bullying is done by humiliating a weaker person - keep in mind, that in most cases, that the bully is the one who physically makes the joke, but there is always a supporting crowd cheering and laughing. Are they all bullies? Probably not. But children can be mean.

Also, the limits of what is considered bullying can be a grey area. In the schools I've been, male students often gave each other strong slaps on the back of the neck when possible. Was it a game? Yes. Was it done in a friendly way? Rarely. Yet not everybody could be considered a bully, even if the enviroment was surely a toxic one.

TL, DR: You bully character may be famous for having done some fist-fights or having shoved someone aside. He may be feared for his imposing looks, or known for being able to make fun of other insecurities. He may be the first to laugh when someone does a mistake, maybe during P.E.. All those little details might have built a reputation for being a bully without him having done something illegal, out-of-scope or exaggerated.

From his POV, you may show how he despises his victim or how he justifies himself (maybe just because he feels angry all the time). From other POV, you can show the suspicion and fear caused by his attitude.

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    Thanks. I have considered describing him by reputation (the other kids can talk about him, or think it, if a viewpoint character) but I didn't want all of it to be telling vs showing. Joe is someone whose body needs to be active. If he has to sit around (like in school), then everything pisses him off and he takes it out on people. He's got other reasons for what he feels and does as well.
    – Cyn
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 17:02

Joe is insecure and craves approval

Joe has a deperate need to be looked up to. It is more important to him than other people's feelings, or even his ability to read the room.

Joe hangs out with 2 morons because they laugh when he makes jokes, and respond to his displays of power imbalance, which they think is funny. Since they aren't very bright, he's got a limited range in which he can reliably trigger their approval. Bullying and mocking smaller kids is something they understand and always respond to. The displays aren't really to keep the younger kids in line, they aren't even to make Joe feel strong. He rarely needs to resort to violence because the smaller kids aren't going to fight him. He never bullies an equal, or someone older, because that would risk possible failure. There's no racist ideology behind it. It's just about getting a reaction and a laugh. Joe desperately needs attention and approval, and this is the lowest hanging fruit.

It is easy to imply that he is modeling this behavior on someone in his own family, an abusive authority figure. Joe isn't mature enough to examine what's wrong, or to admit that his homelife has problems. He knows that important people can make you jump, and they resent "the Jews" because… well, reasons! He may have received approval by mirroring the authority figure. Joe has an enormous hole in his character, he is half a person. That missing half is a flaw that he is compensating for, and functioning around. He has worked out a system that superficially resembles his home hierarchy with himself at the top (the only position that matters), but he believes it only when it's reflected by others. Other people fill the hole, but he needs them to behave in agreement with his idea of how the world works. Joe also understands that he can't take it to the level where a teacher intervenes – that ruins his power display. It also risks calling the unstable authority figure. Joe has to carefully manage his bullying so that he doesn't get bullied himself. This is an insecurity feedback loop that makes him pull back from actual violence or evidence. His bully crew doesn't understand this, the younger kids don't understand this, but Joe has to manage a narrow path to maintain his system.

Why would Joe want to stowaway with some kids who don't even like him? Because making fun of these kids is a more secure path than going home. Keyword is "secure". He knows there will be a negative confrontation on the boat, but he'll be the one who causes it. Just when they are off being the happy Jews or whatever, he'll jump out and tell them all how dumb they are and spoil it for them. It's always better to be the one spoiling than to be the victim.

Remember, Joe is extremely insecure and compensating around this hole. He needs an external reaction, because he's half a person. He is not self-supporting – he cannot prop up his own ego. You could give him a handicap that further isolates him, a learning disability or a sensitivity that was beaten out of him until he repressed it. You won't need to telegraph this too heavily, just provide for its existence. The real transformation happens in Egypt.

Joe is without his bully crew, but he is also without his home oppressor. There are new adults who haven't written him off, and he gets to re-invent himself. He might actually forget that he'd used these kids to prop up his own insecurities, but of course they won't forget – with the rules completely changed the other kids may be more willing to close ranks to keep him out, right around the time he begins to learn to breathe. He may resort to old habits, but they stop registering because he actually doesn't need to compensate here. For the first time in his life Joe is outside the reach of his abuser. He will occasionally be cautiously happy, which will seem unfamiliar to everyone.

A toddler takes a shine to him, and this is some honest adoration from someone who can't judge power systems at all, and maybe these are some of the emotions that he had to repress, caring for someone else, and experiencing love that doesn't turn on and off, or backhand you without warning.

I think this is a semi-realistic psychology, and I'm not sure how far you want to "redeem" him. My guess is you are using the 2yo to signal that he is a changed person, but in rl no one has an "instant" transformation so it might be more honest (although less transformative) to show him struggle with a value system that makes him need and reject the toddler at the same time. He gets to be a new man here, but he hasn't seen this reliably rollmodeled before. Before he discovers how to be a caregiver, he may need to experience a better adult roll model.

In rl Joe is a sociopath who can eventually learn to re-wire his brain's value systems. His moron friends might be psychopaths who actually receive pleasure from seeing others abused in an imbalance of power. I think adults would pick up on all these psychological shades, but I don't know how easily 10-12yo readers will forgive a bully antagonist. They may prefer to see him get his just dues rather than escape an abuser we don't actually see.

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    Thanks. This is a very strong characterization that would work well in a book or other writing. It's just not my Joe. He has his reasons for everything (doesn't everyone?) and they make internal sense. The trip completely changes him; he has the biggest arc of anyone. It does happen slowly and no one forgets who he was (least of all him). He likes toddlers because they aren't old enough to piss him off yet (the kind of frustrating a toddler can be is different from what an older kid can do), so this isn't a change for him, though it's surprising to the other characters who know him.
    – Cyn
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 18:15
  • Hmmm. Based on the subject matter, I would question giving the biggest transformation arc to the gentile/bully.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 18:19
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    Well, you'll just have to read it when it's done and let me know if you still feel the same way. I don't want to explain the whole book (that's a lot of comments in a row) but trust me that it's more complex than it sounds.
    – Cyn
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 18:43

The scariest bully, I think, is not the one who beats you. A punch only hurts for a short while. The scariest bully is the one who humiliates you in front of everyone. What he says, and the others' laughter - it keeps on echoing in your head and hurting. And you're helpless - the teachers who would interfere if somebody was using fists, they ignore words.

He tells you again and again that you're nothing. And he's king - he's big and strong, and has a following. So because he says you're nothing, his following treat you as nothing, and so does everybody who's afraid of him, because they don't want to become "nothing" too - they want to stay on his good side. Somebody else might even hurt you in some small way - throw your bag into the trash, or push you in the corridor and make you fall - it would make the others laugh. He said that's permitted, because you're nothing. They - they don't even think for themselves, they just follow. They might have been nice people under other circumstances.

Because such a bully has so much power, he is frightening. You don't leave a small sibling near such a one, because who knows what he will do. He won't beat the toddler - that's not his style. But who knows what he'll say, what he'll make the infant think.


In my experience, a majority of bullying takes place in peer dominated areas: hallways, lunchrooms, cafeterias, etc. The teacher is not in control, so there are ample opportunities for cutting remarks, snide looks or even vague implied threats (popping knuckles, pounding fists/grinding). If you were looking for something physical, but minor, what about gym class/sports practice? It could be as simple as throwing a basketball at someone's head when they aren't looking to get a laugh and inflict pain, or an escalated fistfight when a teammate lets an opponent score.

Keep in mind, the more vulnerable the victim of his intimidation, the worse Joe will look and vice versa. The farther he goes to protect the child, the more his change will show. You may want to construct a similar situation where he reacts opposite, just to reinforce?


A lot of the answers cover the bully's main strength well: intimidation. And as every well-meaning adult will explain to a bully victim, the bully doesn't really want to fight, they are relying on the intimidation to work.

So, what does that mean for you? Am I suggesting that it's the victim's fault for not sticking up for themselves? Well what would happen if one of them did?

I'm imagining it would go something like this. The bully does something mildly irritating, the way bullies do. The victim, resolved to finally stand up for themselves, screams angrily at the bully (pretty thoroughly indicating to the bully what is about to happen.) Then the victim swings a big punch with all of their might. This is it. It's finally going to happen. The bully is going to get knocked out and finally leave everyone alone.

Except the bully doesn't have to be a particularly good fighter to dodge a haymaker by someone in a blind rage. The victim's eyes might even be closed. Then it will be trivial for the bully to toss the off-balanced victim like a rag doll. (Are we still pretending like this is hypothetical?) Oh, and it just so happens that this happened in a public space with lots of witnesses.

Now your victims are no longer scared that the bully might beat them up. Now they know it. After all, did you see how easily he threw so-and-so into the lockers? So-and-so even still has a small scar.

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