The Big Idea: Chelsea Pitcher

A bad thing happens, and we want justice for it. How far would we go for that justice? And what happens if in the pursuit of justice, we are tempted to act injudiciously? It’s the question that confronts author Chelsea Pitcher in her novel The S-Word.


I’m a pretty pacifistic person. I don’t shoot guns or get turned on by knives. I’ve never even been in a physical fight (outside of sibling roughhousing). But once in a while, I dream of being a vigilante.

Vigilante-me sits atop a darkened high-rise and looks down at the city below. She scours the alleys for murderers and rapists, fingers twitching at the thought of revenge. She doesn’t wear skin-tight leather or a cape, but she does have a penchant for black, and there are probably boots involved. She makes the world a better place, picking up the justice system’s slack.

She’s a heroine.

It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? Deep down, I think we all have vigilante versions of ourselves hovering just beneath the surface of our skin. We see injustice in the world, we feel horrified, and we don’t know what to do to make things right. But the hero-inside knows, and she is ever vigilant, waiting for the right moment to break free and save the day.

I started writing “The S-Word” with this real-world vigilante in mind. Seventeen-year-old Angie is strong, determined, and wicked smart, but she isn’t a masked avenger bringing villains to justice in the dark. She’s a high school student living in a world where bullying is commonplace and suicide is seen as a viable escape. When her best friend, Lizzie, is bullied by the entire school and takes her own life, Angie stops playing the bystander and starts taking action.

That inner vigilante comes out.

After that, everything should be simple, right? The villains are caught, and the hero lives, if not happily, at least contentedly ever after. But trying to pinpoint villains in a society where everyone contributed, through action and passivity, to a teenage girl’s undoing, was harder than I anticipated. Where, even, to begin?

What followed were a series of interrogations, where both Angie and I attempted to uncover the events leading up to Lizzie’s demise. Who participated in the bullying, and why? Who tried to intervene? Who did nothing? Slowly a tapestry revealed itself, made up of dozens of interwoven threads. Angie was able to see, through careful sleuthing, not only who contributed directly to Lizzie’s torment, but also whose silence allowed the bullying to flourish. Now, all she had to do was take that information to the school administrators, and justice could be served…

Except, she didn’t.

Angie, in fact, had very different plans. That’s the problem with vigilantism: you can only work around the law for so long before you feel like you’re above the law. And Angie had done such a good job interrogating her suspects…Why shouldn’t she be the one to punish them? Why shouldn’t she take an eye for an eye, and make them sorry for Lizzie’s suffering—

Wait. What was happening to Angie?

Suddenly, my big idea shifted to something much darker than I’d expected. I was no longer dealing with a heroine’s noble attempt to bring justice to a broken world. I was dealing with the very real possibility of Angie losing her humanity and becoming a villain. After all, how many times can we exact vengeance before our sense of right and wrong becomes blurred? How many times can we be cruel, even to cruel people, before we forget how it feels to be kind?

So my big idea morphed, and mutated, and had little idea babies of its own. “The S-Word” stopped being a story about vigilantes, and became a study in that oh-so-flimsy line between good and evil in us all. And, by the end of it, I couldn’t help envisioning a vigilante and a villain crouching inside of me, each holding the other’s hand, two sides to the same coin, whispering: Let us out, just for a moment… 

What could go wrong?


The S-Word: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read the excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

20 Comments on “The Big Idea: Chelsea Pitcher”

  1. After all, how many times can we exact vengeance before our sense of right and wrong becomes blurred?

    More than a decade later, Gitmo is still open for business. They’re not taking new customers, but I believe Bagram is.

    We have half a century since Operation Ajax by the US and UK put a dictator in charge of Iran from 1953 until the Iranian Revolution finally threw him out in 1979. And Ajax and the US support for the Shah still isn’t openly discussed by US officials. Obama referenced it in a 2009 speech and quite a few people blew gaskets over it.

    So, I think for some, the sense of right and wrong starts out blurred and only gets worse from there.

    a vigilante and a villain crouching inside of me, each holding the other’s hand, two sides to the same coin,

    That coin is called “power”. A vigilante and a villain are both archetypes representing individual power expressed without restrictions from others.

  2. Wow – what a timely Big Idea.
    I’ll be watching for this one, & I look forward to recommending it to others.

  3. At what point does the arbitrary exercise of power go from ‘legitimate’ to ‘illegitimate,’ or vice versa?

  4. Sounds intriguing, though I’d certainly be nervous and wary reading it.

    That coin is called “power”.
    Interesting. Must think about this.

    (Offtopic — since we can’t edit our comments, I didn’t want to experiment — does the comment form parse blockquote tags?)

  5. I’m about halfway through The S-Word. It is powerful, tragic, inspired, and beautiful. Job well done, Chelsea. I can’t put it down. Love the post. All the best to you and Scalzi.

  6. Verity High School? VERITY? Hmmm….

    Not sure I want to read this; but fairly sure I SHOULD read it.

  7. From pacafist to Punisher, do not pass Batman?

    Is it about the pursuit of justice for another when society cannot or will not deliver it, or is it a teenage revenge fantasy for a protagonist that feels personally wronged by the wronging of another, or is it a story of revenge against others as a proxy for self-loathing regret?

    Its sounds like what would happen if someone sought justice by gut instinct, without boundaries, without a moral center and ethical framework against which to check their own choices. There is a reason that when we teach kids martial arts, we teach them more than just the mechanics.

    This sounds like it’s a bit deeper than your average YA novel. That’s meant as a compliment.

  8. So…the alternate-universe version of me, if I hadn’t had the library and its attendant awesome librarians, and two good friends who actually told the bullies to leave me the hell alone, and not “just ignore them and they’ll quit” or “they tease you because they like you” or “you’re being way too sensitive”. Excellent. I shall secure myself a copy.

  9. Oh, I clicked on the amazon link, and got the impression that “S-Word” referred to “slut”. Apparently that’s what they were calling the Lizzie character.


  10. Funny how some people with violent fantasies have to convince themselves they’re actually decent people by mocking others.
    “I may dream about murdering people, but at least I’m not one of those horrible rednecks.”

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