Next Great Baker and Building Characters


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.



16 comments to Next Great Baker and Building Characters

  • I don’t watch reality television anymore, but thanks for finding a useful lesson to be learned from it, Diana. This really gives a good look at human nature. Why do people make the choices they do? It reminds me of the last time I dared watch Survivor, the one with the woman who wore the Boy Scouts uniform. Mrs. Boy Scout was criticized by the other members for wearing that uniform, as if trying to be good on a show where people backstab each other was morally wrong. But when one of the challenges near the end was squats, she had a line that will always stick with me. She told her competition, “My daughter’s going to college next year. I can hold this position for as long as I need.” I know that’s more of a hero’s justification for being despicable, but wow. So would you say we should be watching this stuff for research purposes? 😉

  • Actually, I did watch Survivor for awhile for jungle research. I was more interested in the conditions and terrain. I also watched Deadliest Catch for cold, scary ocean research. So yes, reality shows can be good research. I’ve been trying to see if one of the (idiotic) reality shows set in the south would be good for learning some southern phrases and so on. Sadly (or happily, since they are all awful so far), I’ve not found any that are good. But I will say Deadliest Catch was invaluable, as have been other documentaries. But by no means am I recommending reality TV in general. I was watching Next Great Baker just to see the baking and what they would make. One of the reasons I like Chopped and Cupcake Wars.

  • […] got a post up on Magical Words about characters and The Next Great Baker. Don’t worry, it does make […]

  • I watch Ultimate Survival for… uh… research. Yeah. Research. Nothing whatsoever to do with how cool Bear Grylls is. Research. 😛
    More seriously, I love mixing flaws into my protagonists. My current hero is sarcastic, cynical, arrogant, antisocial and rude. He’s also sensitive, brave, protective, loyal, strangely vulnerable and uncommonly compassionate – he just tries to hide it.
    As for my antag, he needs some work. But he’s more of a tortured character than an evil one.

  • I’ve said for a long time (though I don’t always follow it myself) that some of the best villains are the ones a reader/viewer can relate to on some level, whether they sympathize or not. It’s always one of the first things I tell local indie horror filmmakers that want me to help them with their scripts…and it usually goes in one ear and out the other. Everybody just wants a gore fest.

    It goes the same for heroes too. Flawed protagonists are easier to relate to and sympathize with than perfect ones.

  • There’s also another possibility (and I freely admit I don’t watch that show at all, but I do watch Project Runway and Top Chef and Face Off, all reality TV shows I like–I also will watch Chopped if it is on, but that’s a bit different than the others ’cause it’s a one-shot deal). Anyway, all of the shows have producers and storylines (not like y’all don’t know this). But it is possible that the show’s producers were setting this woman up to fail. They knew she cheated, but let her go on, to kill her off (metaphorically speaking) in the final show. So that the narrative is “aww, cheaters never win!” and the villain gets defeated at the end. I read Tom and Lorenzo–Project Rungay–and they analyze PR along with other reality and non-reality shows. They posit that, especially since the move to Lifetime, from Bravo, PR is pretty much completely story driven rather than fashion driven. So the winner are the ones that the producers want, not the judges, and it leads to the judges making ridiculous claims about truly crappy clothes. 🙂 It’s still fun to watch.

    Regardless of that, though, you’re so right that there’s something to learn from GA. ‘Cause if there is anything America likes more than a hero, it’s a redeemed villain. One we feel for. One we can forgive. Even if they don’t really deserve it. 🙂

  • Unicorn: I like Bear Grylls. I’ve watched that too. I also read a fair amount of how to survive types of books. It’s good research. And tortured characters make for round, delicious characters.

    Daniel: absolutely on both fronts.

    pea_faerie: I watch those others sometimes too. And you’re right. The editing could have been a factor. But it doesn’t change her thinking, which is so amazing to me. I think you’re totally right–and it’s not just America. Everyone seems to like a redeemed villain. In fact, I would venture to say that many of the alpha male characters in romances fit that category on some level. Even Mr. Darcy. But it’s the not deserving part that really makes me scratch my head. Like Mr. Wickham. My feeling is that at the end of the book there is a certain amount of, if not sympathy, then dismissal–it’s just him and it’s all worked out in the end, so no big deal.

  • Funny, my freshman writing classes talked about cheating in sports this morning and it fits right in with your points about GA. One kid asked “What’s the difference between cheating and strategy?” and we had to really chew it over. Another kid suggested a third category “dirty play” – actions that dirty, but aren’t technically forbidden or take advantage of rules loophole to sabotage other players. About half the students regarded “dirty play” as a necessary part of the game. People who didn’t play dirty didn’t care enough about winning, they lacked commitment. I’d bet that if GA was pressed about her cheating she’d use the same excuse.

    What became very apparent in the conversation was that, even though they all professed not to cheat themselves, the students also admired the people who cheated and got away with it. Cheaters who got caught and penalized were losers. But cheaters who won deserved their prizes because they had won. One of my softball players was still angry about losing three years ago to another team that cheated – it was the most fired up she’s been all semester. But even as she denounced them, it was clear that a part of her wished that she and her team had cheated too and felt that the other team had a level of grit and will to win that her team lacked. I think it’s a very American thing – we admire hard work and a stubborn unwillingness to give up or be beaten. We admire winning at great cost more than we admire sportsmanship. So cheaters (or certain kinds of cheats) are allowed or admired because we see their cheating as another level of hard work, a willingness to “go the extra mile” to get the trophy.

  • Sarah: that makes me a bit sad. I’m thinking on the show that the other contestants maybe wished they’d thought about it. Personally I hate cheaters of any kinds. But then you have the question of enhancements–does everyone have similar access to them? Which are okay? Which are not? It’s a tricksy problem with you start unraveling. But it makes for some serious character possibilities, doesn’t it?

  • Diana – yeah, it makes me sad too. But you’re right – it opens up a whole complex world of character. I used to assume that students who cheated were just lazy sleazeballs. Seeing it this way makes it a lot easier to understand how to write a character who does sleazy things, but still thinks of him or herself as in the right. (I’m still taking any plagiarists I catch to the cleaners, though 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Hmmm. I don’t watch reality TV but I see what you’re saying. I don’t think I could write a “perfect” character if I wanted to; my characters pretty much all have flaws. I like having a villain that people sometimes want to sympathize with; it’s a twist that (I hope) makes the character more memorable. 😉

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hmmm, this is an interesting conversation. It reminds me of the Xenophobe’s guide series. The Xenophobe’s Guide to Americans states that for everything in American culture, there has to be a winner, that, for example, weddings are all about the bride being a winner for that occasion. The guide also states: “Americans don’t like it when you smoke, and they will tell you so,” so, you know, every culture has it’s goods and bads. It does put the awefulness of the academic career tracks in clearer perspective, though. When I started grad school I was told that everyone who *wanted* to stay in Astronomy managed to do so – implicit was the understanding that *wanting* meant being willing to sacrifice absolutely everything else to that goal.

  • […] been having a really interesting discussion on motivations over at Magical Words. Come on over and look at the comments. It’s fascinating, if a bit […]

  • Sarah: me too, especially on the sleazeballs. But what if they think they are doing what we want/will admire?

    Razziecat: flaws are always necessary in my mind. What’s hard for me is getting into the mindset of someone I don’t understand, as in this case. But the comments above have certainly helped me think through some of it.

    Hepseba: That’s really interesting and it has a ring of truth to it. And it does put an interesting spin on Academia, doesn’t it? *shudder*

  • There’s nothing real about reality shows like the one you described … it’s all about the ratings, and therefore appealing to the lowest common denominator. Having got a little too close for comfort to the ‘behind -the-scenes’ ugliness of one of these shows a while back, I know what I speak of … but then, there’s stories to be found in that too.

  • Widdershins: I know the “real” is quite unreal. But now I’m curious about your experiences. Do tell! But I think it still is interesting her attitude on cheating and how justified she was. Plus in the comments how that has come up in other venues. Now, please tell?