I watch The Next Great Baker. The final episode was last night or so–I recorded it, so I’m not remembering exactly. Anyhow, it got to the end and it was down to three different women. One of whom, Gretel-Ann, sabotaged one of the other bakers (not for the first time during the competition), and that baker ended up losing the semi-final because of it. Specifically she turned the oven to the wrong temperature so that the cupcakes were ruined and she hid baking sheets so the other two bakers wouldn’t have enough. Since the competition was based on how much each could produce and sell, obviously that hurt the others.
So there she is in the final. The last two have to bake a big cake all about Las Vegas and it should also tell a story. We get down to the presentation and GA tells a sob story about her journey and how much she’s had to struggle and how many people have told her no in her life, and she was going to get to yes this time. Hers was clearly the uglier cake. The other contestant threw a bit of a rage-fit on stage about a previous contestant, but ended up winning.
In the following bits, they show GA going off on how this other younger woman (25 years old), hadn’t paid her dues and now the bakery would turn into a daycare, and generally being a sore loser. Frankly, if she had won, I never would have watched again. Mostly because she wasn’t as good as many others, but she won various rounds by cheating. The judges were aware of this fact, but did not ever comment on it. I found this repulsive. But I bet you’re wondering what this has to do with writing. Well, I’m going to tell you.
GA kept going on about how this was a competition, she wasn’t here to make friends, and she would do whatever it took to win. Including cheating. I kept expecting her to say something to the effect of: “I was the only one who cared enough to cheat! Nobody else wanted it enough to cheat the way I did!” It was clearly in her mind and clearly she felt entirely justified.
I don’t understand her. But I think I need to, because she made so many people on that stage (including judges), change their votes about who should win, in favor of her. Now the judges knew she’d cheated, but they still were in favor of her. That boggles me, and it does because it happens all the time. People do despicable things, find a way to justify it, and gain sympathy from people who know exactly what they’ve done.
I’m not talking abusive relationships here, where there’s time for the abuser to mentally train the abused person to cooperate and participate in their own oppression and abuse. I’m talking about friends or acquaintances or even strangers who garner admiration for bad behavior. An extreme example would be someone like Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, who have rabid admirers while others find them utterly despicable. I have worked with people who are rude and dismissive and yet are admired by those they are obnoxious to.
The question is why? Going back to GA, I did not find her at all charismatic. I say that because charisma was my first explanation. People can know how to charm while at the same time being complete asshats. I wonder if it is the ability to show emotion and be vulnerable. Most people are empathetic and want to help those who are in pain. I wonder then if that’s the key–for a despicable person to show vulnerability. Or maybe it isn’t that they aren’t despicable, that they are only sometime evil/mean and that they are completely ordinary the rest of the time. Stir in some vulnerability/shame/tears, and voila! You’ve got someone who is justified by their desperation or weakness or sad back story (Doofenshmirtz anyone?), to do the bad things she does.
People tend to sympathize with flawed characters. They see themselves in this sort of character because people are not perfect. Somebody who is too perfect is just annoying. Most people will find themselves doing things that they are ashamed of later or even during, but can’t stop themselves because they are desperate, or they want something so desperately.
This has been a long post. But at the end of it, when you write a bad guy or even a good guy, there’s something to be learned from Gretal-Ann. She did something I despise, something most people should despise, and yet she won sympathy and admiration with her heartfelt sad story of struggle. She made herself admirable and that was enough to overcome a lot of revulsion for her.
So next time you’re writing a not so nice character, mix in a little vulnerability and justification in the back story–make the character more sympathetic, which will make your reader connect more and struggle more when the bad character turns out bad. On the other hand, if you’re writing a good character, mix in a little of the obnoxiousness, doing bad things. Make her understandable in her wrongness, even as you make her vulnerable. Once again readers will empathize with her. In the end, a truly good story depends on your readers connecting to your characters–good and bad. Stories are memorable because of characters.
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