Trope Tuesday: Un-Person

Dissenters, am I right? What's a totalitarian and/or dystopian government to do? Throw them in jail? Declare them persona non grata and exile them? Execute them? History and literature are rich with examples of that backfiring on despots. The most effective method is summed up in today's trope: the Un-Person. Personally, I find it one of the most disturbing of all ways to off-board or transform a character. Here's TVTropes' summary:

When some group systematically removes evidence of a character's existence, either through mundane conspiracy, or a little bit of Applied Phlebotinum (such as brainwashing). The purposes for doing so vary. This is more commonly done in enclosed or isolated areas, where it's easier to track evidence. This can lead to characters tracking the shreds of evidence the hiders left behind. Often any shred of evidence they find will disappear when they show someone.
In Real Life, this practice is called Damnatio Memoriae , which is Latin for "damnation of memory", and was done by the ancient Romans. It often relies on the fact that History is Written by the Winners, and of course, the winners would always like to remove evidence of opposition against their otherwise tyrannical rule as a warning for others and to perpetuate their power. It is also done for other purposes, such as literally condemning questionable acts done by the person in his lifetime to deter possible future offenders.

This trope has been on my mind a lot lately. Not least of which because I've been watching The Leftovers, reading Going Clear, and in general thinking about one of the classic cautionary characters of 1984:  Syme. The erasing of people is full of terrifying and interesting possibilities when applied to writing fiction, using the negative space of a character's sudden absence as a means of disrupting a narrative and making a reader or viewer feel loss in a very literal way. 

Let's start with Syme, albeit a very minor character but one that serves a very important role in world-building and the development of Winston. I empathize with Syme and he affected me more than almost any character in 1984. Why? Because in a totalitarian regime where thoughtcrime was a very real concept, Syme was often blunt and honest in a way that makes Winston, the main character, uncomfortable. I've been accused of being the same by many coworkers, often willing to say things that get me in hot water and unsettle things. Obviously, I wouldn't live very long in any sort of totalitarian world.

Winston's fears about what would happen to Syme are eventually somewhat realized when Syme simply disappears one day. Wilson realizes that Syme has become an un- person. Whether he's disappeared into the dungeons of the Ministry of Love, dead, in a labor camp, or other is never revealed. Reading 1984 as a teenager, this chilled me to the bone. And, to often, it has been a political reality in totalitarian regimes. Whatever happened to Syme, it wasn't good. Further, it's heavily suggested that asking any questions or mentioning him would yield the same results. More chilling than an execution or a murder, Syme's erasure sets the stage and builds dread in the reader for the inevitable unpleasantries Winston himself will experience by committing worse "crimes" than simply shooting his mouth off. Rendering Syme an "Un-Person" serves the purpose of illiciting a kind of existential horror in the reader while underlining the brutality and thin-skinned nature of 1984's specific dystopia. 

The Leftovers had another example of this chilling trope deployed in the series' unsettling cult: the Guilty Remnant. While (at this point) the Guilty Remnant's motives and agenda still remain unclear, they clearly work to turn their members into an un-person with their consent. In slowly depriving their initiates of their possessions and thus their connections to their past lives, their ability to feel, then, finally, their very voices, the Guilty Remnant effectively erases an individual. They turn into a walking blank slate. It's an interesting deployment of the Un-Person as they convince their members to do it to themselves, often with catastrophic effects on the people who knew and loved them before they joined the Guilty Remnant. Instead of simply having someone stricken from the record, disappeared, or forgotten, they choose to undergo this transformation out of free will with relatively little to no violent coercion. A willful stripping of the identity. In many ways, this "Un-personing" provokes the same existential horror of a classic example like Syme in 1984 but in a different direction: shock and dread at what a belief system that can makes someone want to lose their identity is capable of. If they can convince people to surrender their entire sense of self, what next? I've had similar, though less extreme jitters reading about Scientology's RPF in Going Clear. 

Literature is full of examples of tragic deaths and farewell speeches from characters, but the abrupt silence and absence of a character can be an effective and jarring jolt.