On… character-abuse

The other night I read an interesting piece in the New Yorker about Anna Faris. (Read it here if you’re on an iPad.)

I can’t stop thinking about this excerpt:

‘To make a woman adorable, one successful female screenwriter says, “you have to defeat her in the beginning. It’s a conscious thing I do. Abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun.”… Relatability is based upon vulnerability, which creates likeability.’


This is exactly – EXACTLY – what I do when I write. And yes, it’s deliberate. But to see it put in terms like that is kind of depressing.

My name is Gemma Burgess and I am a character-abuser.

Let’s analyse:

THE DATING DETOX, my first book, starts with Sass being cheated on at a horrific house party, resulting in her swearing off men. So even though she’s a flirty smart-arse with a lot of attitude, we know she’s just like us.

A GIRL LIKE YOU, my second book, starts with Abigail on a disastrous, panic-stricken date, so we can see that though she’s an investment banker who just left her long-term boyfriend without a second glance, she’s also just like us.

I’m currently finishing my third novel – the first in the UNION STREET series for St Martins Press, about a group of post-college girls sharing a house in Brooklyn through their 20s – and yet again, the protagonist’s life pretty much collapses in chapter one. I’ve plotted the second and third: again, a disaster followed by trials and tribulations followed by victory.

I also write romantic comedy movies. (In fact, I deliberately structure my books to be like romantic comedy movies: I read romantic comedy scripts, and books about plots and screenwriting, when I’m planning outlines. I write to entertain: heavily on the dialogue, light on prose.) At the moment I have three movie scripts that are in decent shape. Each also features a female character whose life disintegrates in the first 15 minutes. In one script, it happens in about four minutes.

See? Character-abuser.

I feel like such a bitch.

So why do I do it? Firstly, because I feel that a disastrous event is the fastest way to jumpstart the story and make you wonder ‘what next?’. (There are probably better ways, but I’m new at this, remember. I was an advertising copywriter for most of my 20s.)

Secondly, in a lot of chickflicks/chicklit books, it often seems like the main character is meant to be lovable because she’s a clueless idiot and I’m meant to feel sorry for her. And I’ve always hated that.

I don’t want to write about (or read about, or watch) clueless idiots. I want characters who feel real to me, who are funny (without being neurotic or crazy or pratfall-y), smart (not ditzy or streetsmart or too-smart-for-her-own-good), have real jobs (I swore I’d never write about a florist), work hard (without being harridans that sacrifice a lovelife for their corner office), who genuinely like men and sex (without being crazy sluts or insecure pining-for-their-devilish-boss types), and who are doing their best to figure out where they’re going in life. I want them to be funny, swear, drink, fuck, have real friendships, have a social life, make mistakes, dress the way real girls dress on a real girl’s budget, be a bitch/stupid sometimes, have a normal amount of confidence that isn’t lifted by a man alone, etc. A girl like you, in other words.

So when I first started writing, I quickly realised that if I wanted to keep my character as a non-loser, but make people like her whilst making her journey immediately compelling, I needed something bad-but-relatable to happen to her, fast, in order to establish a connection. And to keep her likeable, I needed it to be relayed in a first-person-present-tense, with a confiding, chatty tone of voice, so that the reactions and emotions feel immediate and real and personal.

And that’s what I did.

The result is more than just feeling sorry for her. (I hope.) We immediately recognise the universality of her experience. (I hope.) We empathise with her reaction/decisions and feel like we understand her / want to protect her. (I hope.) And – ta-da! – we feel euphoric when she ultimately succeeds and finds an emotionally satisfying happiness. (I really, really hope.)

I wonder if that’s emotionally manipulative character abuse? Or just an extension of how women make friends? We console each other – and ourselves – by sharing and empathising. If my friend has just been dumped/fired, I comfort her with similar stories so she knows she’s not alone. I always feel better when I know that what I’m going through is something someone else has gone through, and survived. Misery shared = bonding. So a disastrous event makes me care what happens next.

By the by, I also bank heavily on the hope that the reader/viewer finds my stuff so hilarious that they can’t stop reading/watching. But humour without plot and character is nothing. It has to all work together.

One day I might try to write, or plan, something that doesn’t involve an emotional Hiroshima before you know the character’s last name.

I wonder if it will work.

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One thought on “On… character-abuse

  1. William Kendall

    I think character abuse on the part of authors transcends genres. In mine, I've put my antagonists through personal hell early on, to the point where I kept feeling compelled to apologize to them.


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