Monthly Archives: October 2015

Symptoms of a Sociopath

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If book sales in the past decade are any indication, there exists a significant faction of readers out there who view stalking, obsession, and controlling behavior as oh-so-sexy… as long as said behavior comes from a handsome leading man. Give him fish eyes and a jumble-toothed grin, and suddenly the heroine is a victim instead of an envied avatar.

As I said in my last post, this trend in literature is nothing new. That it persists is what I find so disheartening.

I’ll be blunt: if the hero lies, manipulates, stalks, coerces, entraps, or performs any other act from a known spectrum of creepy behavior, and especially if he does it for his own benefit (usually to gain power over the heroine), he’s no hero. Those traits aren’t characteristics of a brooding romantic. They are symptoms of a sociopath.

(The same goes for female characters, of course, but when such traits occur in women, the book immediately shifts over to its rightful genre, thriller, and everyone recognizes her for the crazy that she is.)

Sociopaths make for fascinating characters. They can drive a plot forward, provide compelling tension, create seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Their detached, rational thought process and meticulous intelligence can strike terror in a main character and the reader both. One might say that sociopaths make the very best of villains.

They make horrible love interests, though. Mostly because, from a normal perspective, they’re dangerous and emotionally destructive.

And yet, they keep getting cast in that role, where often their only positive traits are wealth and a handsome face. A prevailing social narrative right now idolizes intelligence and rational thought, characterized by career success and a calm, detached demeanor respectively. Smoldering stares are prized over affability any day of the week.

“Just because a character smolders a lot doesn’t make him a sociopath, Kate.” Yeah, okay. If he smolders a lot, can he also turn on the charm when he wants to? And maybe that makes the smoldering all right?

Haha. Guess again.

Because I’m a giver (and because I’m too lazy to paraphrase when I’d have to cite the sources anyway), I will here provide some resources on sociopaths. Click the following for links:

If you’re really ambitious, measure your favorite character on any one of these scales. Measure other characters. Create a character or two or five and plop them into a lovely world they can manipulate to their shriveled hearts’ content.

Just, if you’re not writing thrillers, don’t give any of them a love interest, mmkay?

(Unless it’s another sociopath, I mean. Voldemort/Bellatrix, anyone?).

How It Should Have Ended

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This is the very first Average Everygirl comic I drew. In fact, it’s where her name originated. I had taken to doodling plot points that annoyed me, and really, what’s more annoying than the Wealthy Sociopath as a Love Interest scenario?

Sadly, this premise goes all the way back to the dawn of the English novel. In 1740, Samuel Richardson published Pamela. Its plot? A chamber maid evades her noble employer’s repeated sexual assaults by fleeing or fainting (or both); when he finds he cannot have his way with her as he pleases, he marries her instead.

My favorite part of the book is its subtitle: Virtue Rewarded.

“Congratulations, Pamela! You’ve successfully escaped several traumatic attacks on your person! Now you get to marry your would-be rapist! Hooray!”

It really is that bad. The guy paws and pursues her. He intercepts her letters to her parents. He yanks her onto his lap, kisses her against her will, rips her clothes, hides out in her bedroom closet, and gets into bed with her—once with a female accomplice holding her in place while he cozies up on the other side. Pamela’s faints and fits are the only things that save her, though the astute reader will discern that we don’t actually know what happens to her in those blackout periods. We only have her attacker’s assertion that he didn’t do anything, and he lies about that to other servants, so why would he tell the whole truth to Pamela?

Later in the story, after they’re married, it comes to light that he previously seduced another working girl, who then had his baby and is off living in another town with the child. So it wasn’t just Pamela ur so hott i need u now. It was I’m so rich I can do whatever I please with whomever I want and have no lasting consequences. What a gem.

In a perfect world, the novel would have consisted of one letter:

Dear Mom and Dad,

My employer tried to molest me, so I punched him in the face. Am packing my things and will be home shortly.

Your devoted daughter,
Pamela

Instead, we have two volumes of Pamela gushing about dozens of contrived situations. Mr. B, despite his repeated assaults, never gets charged with anything. He never even suffers from a tarnished reputation. He’s young and rich and hot, and all his “foibles” stem from his youth and wealth and hotness. He displays red flags like the feathers in a peacock’s tail, but his servants dismiss them because he’s their employer. Meanwhile, we are supposed to dismiss them because everything turns out “happy” in the end.

Haha… ha…

Yeah.

The public at the time ate the story up. It was preached from pulpits as an ideal of virtuous, womanly behavior. And while I can agree that, yes, we should run from our attackers, Pamela is hardly a role model. For one thing, she continues working for the squire despite his repeated, often violent attempts to seduce her. She also doesn’t reject his offer of marriage when it finally comes around. She hems and haws over whether he’s sincere or trying to trick her, but ultimately she gives in.

He’s reformed, you see. The right woman has that effect upon a man. It’s the Power of Romance™.

And it’s utterly, utterly false.

The great shame of Pamela, and of the many other novels of its ilk that have followed since, is that it neutralizes fundamentally repulsive behavior with something as shallow as money and a handsome face. Even worse, it sends the message that when a man inflicts violence upon a woman, she secretly wants it and she’ll eventually accept it if the conditions are right. In other words, she likes the repulsive behavior; she just doesn’t know it yet. The man and the audience both do, however, and we revel in her journey of enlightenment. Or at least, we’re expected to.

I don’t. Of all the subversively destructive literary tropes, this one really chaps my hide.

But Pamela at least has an excuse: it was written by a man. Richardson was a product of his era, when women were property and marrying well ensured them a comfortable life. He did break boundaries with a working-class heroine who entered the ranks of nobility, but the mess of a story undermines that message. In the end, the sole triumph of Pamela is that it spurred Henry Fielding to write Shamela and Joseph Andrews, both parodies of this literary atrocity.

A literary atrocity, I remind you, that reincarnates every time an impossibly rich, impeccably hot, implicitly abusive hero swaggers onto the page.

Triangles, Helen of Troy, and Pigskin: A Study in Metaphorical Parallels

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Alas. Logic brings a swift death to romance.

Today’s installment pokes fun at what is, perhaps, my biggest beef with the Love Triangle scenario: when two obviously attractive Characters B and C fall for the same Character A who must then choose between them, it strips any sort of romantic tension from the story. Instead of a knuckle-biting, “Ooh, who will Character A choose?” I think, “What’s the big deal? With this track record, Characters D through Z must be lining up around the block.”

And I realize that I probably shouldn’t equate romance with a scarcity of lovers, but when there is no shortage of potential partners and they’re all equally attractive, there’s no real gamble, either. I mean, Character A ends up with someone regardless (which is typically the end goal for this type of story). Characters B and C might have their own (often canned) personality flavors, but they’re both framed as viable choices, and the story rarely continues on to show any dire consequences for Character A in the aftermath. As readers we’re left to assume that the final outcome was the best.

(And if we disagree, there’s always fanfic.)

The urgency of the choice, too, gets on my nerves. “It’s now or nothing, Character A! You will never again meet anyone as perfect for you as these two magnificent specimens!”

A) Depressing.

B) Obviously Character A has some attraction that draws multiple love interests. Unless there’s a character overhaul in the near future (a traumatic brain injury that alters one’s personality, for example), chances are that attraction will still exist beyond the scope of the story.

Which brings to mind a question. If Character A (for Attractive) chooses B over C and they snuggle up together for their happily ever after, do Characters D through Z still show up wanting their turn in the aftermath? Does Character B get to look forward to an endless parade of rivals?

There is literary precedence for this scenario. Helen of Troy chose Menelaus from her man-harem, married him, and then ran off with Paris when he finally waltzed into the picture. And we all know how well that ended. (Paris died in battle, Helen moved on to Deiphobus, Menelaus finally won the war and dragged her back home to Sparta. Yadda yadda yadda.)

But then, Helen was the most beautiful woman on earth. More specifically, she was the most beautiful trophy on earth. Girl-as-Object was alive and robust in former eras. Sadly, we keep it alive with this particular love triangle scenario (and its Guy-as-Object variation, naturally), even if our heroine is only mediocre in looks.

Which brings me to a comment a friend made, regarding my last blog entry:

“One of the famous philosophers stated that the primary relationship in a triangle is not the apex, but between the two angles of the base. The two Hot Guys going after the girl don’t have a relationship with her, they have a relationship with each other.” ~Jen, who is brilliant in a multitude of ways

Imma let that sink in.

They have a relationship with each other.

A love triangle of this nature is not about the main character. It’s about the two rivals. If you pad them, dress them up in vibrant knee breeches, and assign them each a mascot, you can swap the girl out for an inflated piece of pigskin and have roughly the same pattern of action.

Back and forth, back and forth, here a touchdown, there a field goal. At the end of the book, the winning team gloats and the loser slinks off into oblivion. Or springs back renewed in a sequel, the rivalry more bitter than ever.

That’s right. We’re playing the literary equivalent of football. Suddenly all those #TeamWhoever tags make sense.

As does my apathy for Love Triangles.

(Sorry, not sorry.)

At least I know what I’m doing the next time I watch a football game. Now all I have to decide is whether I should call the ball Bella or Katniss. #TeamWhoeverWins