Stop Judging Your Characters
Especially if they're female!
I hate when you can just tell that a writer was just dripping with digust for one of their characters.
Disgust for their choices, or their style of dress, or their idiosyncratic teeth sucking during mealtime.
Let me differentiate here – I’m not talking about characters judging other characters. That’s normal. In fact, that SHOULD be happening in the narrative.
I’m talking about in the narration, embedded in the bones of the story, when you can FEEL that the writer held nothing but disdain for this character as they were writing it.
I guess if it’s a villain it feels okay somehow, because at least a villain has agency. The Joker is evil; Scar is evil; Rose McGowan in Jawbreaker is evil. We rejoice in their bad behavior because they’re choosing to be evil and the writer is letting you know that evil choices are bad and shall be judged accordingly. Fine.
But what I find more often is that it’s ditzy girls who bear the brunt of this judginess.
I don’t want to point fingers, but …..
Here we go.
Take this scene from Legally Blonde:
You wanna know why it isn’t fun to watch Legally Blonde anymore? It’s because you can tell the writer really didn’t care for the characters at all, that they’re all either ditzy or “frigid” and that they should stay in their respective lanes. Elle gets no respect in the storytelling until she decides to “do something” the writer considers worthwhile.
Back when I was an undergrad at Yeshiva University, I thought the reason I hated this one YouTube video was because I was jealous of the guy on the boys’ campus who made it and then a few months later made the Maccabeats video that went viral and got them invitations to the White House, but NO, IT’S NOT BECAUSE I’M JEALOUS, it’s because this video is being totally judgmental and mean about the Stern girls they’re parodying:
It’s annoying as hell to realize that the writer is judging a character that looks like you.
(I did make a response a to it with a few friends at the time, without realizing the original video was just a takeoff of a different parody video that also acts like they hate women. And, okay, fine, I didn’t see the script until the day we shot it, when we did a total rewrite, so, okay, not my best work. But those Brovenders/Michlelet Esther lines – GOLD, I tell you!!)
I hate when you can tell a character is being judged, period.
HOW TO DO IT RIGHT
Rather than harp on the negatives, let’s look at the ones who didn’t commit this sin.
There’s a Marilyn Monroe movie called How to Marry a Millionaire, which has a plot that goes exactly the way it sounds. In it, Betty Grable plays a character named Loco.
Loco is a ditz. Loco also knows how to turn a quarter into a meal with multiple bottles of champagne. She’s an idiot, but the writer respects her enough to show her in her element, to show what she has to offer despite her ditziness. Schatze is the brains of the operation, but Loco is the one who gets things done.
Then we’ve got The Last Tattoo by Oyinkan Braithwaite (of My Sister is a Serial Killer fame), a broken-up short story that appeared in two issues of McSweeney’s. (Yes, I bought the second issue to find out what happened … kinda didn’t need to.)
The main character is a girl in Nigeria, Mrs. Ajanlekoko, whose husband married her because she’s a dead ringer for his real love, Feranmi. Feranmi is an author and she’s brilliant and she has amazing style, while it’s clear that Mrs. Ajanlekoko is none of those things. She stalks her husband’s former flame on Instagram and starts dressing like her.
Despite the fact that Mrs. Ajanlekoko is not very smart – as her husband makes clear, as her inner monologue makes clear – she is still given agency. While dressing like someone won’t turn you into them, this decision has motivation and clearly it’s well-executed: when Feranmi comes to visit, she thinks it’s a joke.
Mrs. Ajanlekoko’s values are questionable, as are her smarts, but the writer does not judge her for them. We are given clear roadmaps to understanding her character.
Last but not least, we have Glee.
Is this truly a pop culture argument if I don’t bring up Glee?
Before Brittany became half of the most famous Millennial cheerleader couple, she was just Quinn’s backup with some truly zany one-liners. These quips were but a small window into the strange and wonderful world of Brittany. From them we learned that what we see is not necessarily what she sees, and that, yes, she is rather dumb.
This did not, however, give the writers cause to be judgy with her. On the contrary, Brittany’s basic lack of understanding in most situations made the other characters run around her in circles. Her behavior caused them to change, instead of them shaming her for not knowing where babies come from.
What I’m saying is that maybe, the next time you find yourself writing a character who resembles someone you look down on a little too much, take a step back and determine who you’re paying service to – the character or your own overinflated ego.
Unless you’re Jane Austen.
Then it’s funny.
But NO ONE ELSE.