Friday, September 20, 2013

Nobody Likes Me Syndrome

In a recent Friday Tidbit, I briefly mentioned a hallmark of Mary Sues which I called "Nobody Likes Me Syndrome." This is my own term for a phenomenon I have encountered so many times since I began editing that I finally could not ignore the pattern. So I've decided to present this subtle malady to the rest of you so that you can carefully avoid it!

First, however, I want to talk about "The Outcast."

The Outcast is a popular character for many young writers, I believe because the feeling of "I don't belong" is such a universal, so easy to relate to. Even some of the most extroverted people I know suffer from feeling isolated and sympathize with The Outcast character just as much as any of us dyed-in-the-wool introverts.

The Outcast is a character who doesn't fit into her society. For whatever reason, she always says the wrong thing, doesn't quite understand her family/people-group, has tendency toward rebellion, etc. As the story progresses, we either discover that this inability to fit stems from a secret past or parentage (Eloise McGraw's The Moorchild comes to mind as a great example), or from a dark secret pertaining to the society itself (as in Lowis Lowry's The Giver). In some more drastic cases, it's because the protagonist is disfigured, deformed, or so ugly as to cause fear in others (The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, or my own Veiled Rose).

The Outcast is a particularly popular character in old fairy tales and, in more recent literary history, modern fantasies. Frodo Baggins is an outcast because of his "Tookish tendencies." Cinderella is an outcast because she's fallen from good to low society, and subsequently fits into neither. The Beast from Beauty and the Beast is a classic outcast, trapped in his curse . . . and Disney came up with an interesting foil for him in their Belle, whom they also made an outcast from her village due to her bookishness.

My point being, The Outcast is everywhere, is a fun theme in fiction, one I have used on many occasions and intend to use in the future. And so should you!

But "Nobody Likes Me Syndrome" is a different story altogether. So what is it exactly?

"Nobody Likes Me Syndrome" is the state of being in which a heroine--a lovely, likable, kind, sad, lonely, not-necessarily-but-often-very beautiful heroine--is hated by all of those around her. She is surrounded by monsters, who pick on her, abuse her, put upon her, slap her, attack her, look down upon her, gossip about her, spew vitriol at her . . . the whole works.

For no reason other than that she's the heroine.

Oh, the writer's invent reasons a little more specific. I've seen heroines hated because they are so beautiful. I've seen heroines hated because they are so ugly. I've seen heroines hated because they are orphaned, or because they are the only person able to see the evils of their society, or because they possess magical powers. The reasons are as varied as the writers inventing them. In fact, on the surface, these heroines look very much like the classic Outcast.

What's the difference then?

The difference is that a heroine suffering from Nobody Likes Me Syndrome exists in a world of horrid caricatures.

Every time I read a story (both published and unpublished alike) featuring Nobody Likes Me Syndrome, I get the impression that the author is somehow afraid that I, her reader, will be confused as to which characters are supposed to be good. So she makes all of the secondary characters so horrendously awful (i.e. shallow, cruel, worldly, bitter, brutal, envious, frustrated, avaricious etc.) that I cannot help but bond to the heroine instead.

Usually the basic premise of the Outcast Heroine is not at fault in these stories. We readers will always enjoy a good Outcast.

It's the extreme hatefulness of everyone else in the heroine's life that is the problem.

It's all too easy with  Nobody Likes Me Syndrome to lose believability in your side characters. Because seriously, are all of these heroines going to live in worlds peopled with nothing but utterly hateful hags? Do none of these folks possess any good qualities? Particularly the Other Girls. They are often so horrid to our heroine, they border on insanity.

A hallmark of Nobody Likes Me Syndrome is the Other Girl. She is always set up in contrast with the heroine as being shallow, self-centered, often (but not always) extremely beautiful, utterly fixated on attracting all the hot guys, unintelligent, cruel, but oddly popular among her peers. She says nasty, cutting things to our heroine, and will even physically assault her given the least provocation.

She is a source of extreme aggravation to our heroine. And our heroine will spend much of her narrative thought time considering how much she despises the Other Girl. How much she wishes other people could see the truth about the Other Girl and realize what a monster she is (but the whole village remains remarkably dense on that score).

The result is the same: Not only do I end up disliking the Other Girl, but I also end up disliking our heroine . . . whose thought-life is so nasty and bitter toward those around her, and particularly toward the Other Girl, that I can't help but wondering if maybe she is outcast simply because she is so unbearably judgmental.

I have a theory about Nobody Likes Me Syndrome . . . and since this post is already so very long, I'll go ahead and share it, trusting that if you've read this far, you're still interested! Here's my theory:

Nobody Likes Me Syndrome crops up in manuscripts so often because we writers (tending to be the introverted/creative types) are often the Wallflower growing up. We are the girl who sits in the corner, watching the Attractive Girl command the crowd and catch the attention of young men. And she never bothers to acknowledge us.

And we think to ourselves, "Well, she is just shallow/worldly/fake/hateful. If they knew what she really was--and if they knew who I really am--things would be different!"

So, in our introverted creativity, we invent worlds for our heroines where our readers can be in no doubt who the true heroine is, revealing the evil of the Other Girls in grotesque extremes. And not just the Other Girls . . . the people who always seem to gravitate to the Other Girls as well. They are equally hateful.

But it's just another fantasy.

In real life, those people you see around you are . . . people. The Attractive Girl? She is probably riddled with self-doubt and anxiety, and she's quite possibly just as lonely as the Wallflower. Perhaps she doesn't talk to me because, well, I don't talk to her. She might even be intimidated by my standoffishness and think I don't like her or am judging her.

Which, truth be told, I am.

This is the reality of Nobody Likes Me Syndrome. When I read about these poor, put-upon heroines and the awful people surrounding them (particularly the horrendous Other Girls), I can't help but wonder, "How would this heroine appear from their perspectives? What would this story look like if the Other Girl was the star?"

So far when I've requested the folks for whom I've edited to revise Nobody Likes Me Syndrome into something more like, "Some people don't like me, some people do, but no matter what, I'm lonely and feel outcast," the stories strengthen tenfold. Even better have been those writers who've adjusted their story to, "Everybody likes me, but I still feel alone." How much more real is that?

And best of all is when those writers take the time to turn the hateful caricatures into real characters: People with likes, dislikes, interests, heartbreaks, sins, virtues, and (most importantly) motivations. It is amazing how much life the heroine herself will take on if she is playing opposite a fleshed-out cast!

Again, the issue here is not the Outcast. Do write your Outcasts, my dears! Write them, explore them, enjoy them, and watch them grow. Watch them find their places in the world, watch them build their own new families.

But don't force them to play opposite stereotypical Other Girls and other monsters various. Give them real people as their foils! Oh, they'll face true villains enough as the story progresses, but don't fill their worlds with nothing but villains. Consider what the story must look like from those side-characters' perspectives. Understand their reasons for misunderstanding our heroine! Give them the sympathy they deserve.

So what are your thoughts on Nobody Likes Me Syndrome? Have you read books that you liked or disliked that featured this storyline? What are some other differences between Nobody Likes Me Syndrome and The Outcast that you can see?


Unknown said...

For one thing chronic Nobody-Likes-Me-ism is often accompanied by Mary Sue-ish-ness, since "nobody UNDERSTANDS me!" One thing I like about the Outcast, though, is that many times they are exiled because of their own flaws. I know I have been before. They are bossy, selfish, self-centered-- and people don't want to put up with that. Not that this rule always applies. Look at Rosie! But then again, look at Leo. He is not a popular figure in the Southlands. Was it his fault?

Meredith said...

Oh, my. What a convicting and wonderful post! I fully admit my culpability in the "nobody likes me" syndrome. Think I'll have to reexamine my Cinderella stories a little more. Ouch.
I like your theory about writers being wallflowers and are therefore drawn to the outcast characters. Don't know if this is true for everyone, but it definitely applies to me. I especially think of school dances, (we were all forced to attend, of course), but I never liked them because I was on the sidelines. Things got better as I got older, and I have God to thank for that.

One of my favorite books is Nancy Farmer's The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, and it has three outcast detectives who are avoided because of their outlandish appearances. However, Ms. Farmer doesn't resort to "poor pitiful me." The detectives are hilareous yet also profound, and they mirror the main child protagonist in the story who goes on a journey of self-discovery. It's a great book. And, of course, I love Rosie so very much. I love how Ms. Allison pointed out that Leo is an outcast as well.

God bless, and thanks for this thought-provoking post.

Clara said...

Oh, my I have to steer clear of Mean Girls! Thanks for this post Anne Elisabeth; it helped me alot;)

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Oh, my, thank you! I just read a Nobody Likes Me this year. Despite how kind and sacrificial our heroine was, her family despised her and ALL the Other Girls despised her. But funny thing . . . the hero still fell in love with her. I came away not liking any of them, and you've helped me understand why. Great post.


Jenelle Leanne said...

I can't think of any books off the top of my head, but many teen-age/chick-flicky movies do come to mind :)

Rachel6 said...

Elsie. Dinsmore. Perfect, persecuted, pitiful, and painful.

I'm a big fan of the Outcast-By-Their-Own-Flaws stories. Howl's Moving Castle (if he weren't a lying womanizer creating crazy stories about himself...!), Loki (self-pity, really horrible way of dealing with unhappy truths...but he's actually a villain, not a hero...) Leo, who didn't handle the whole Dragon thing particularly well. I find those people more relatable and more interesting, because they can change, and others will respond differently accordingly.

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques had some seriously annoying villains. If they're certain species (fox, weasel, stoat, rat), they're EVIL. Even if they're raised by good guys. But his good guys actually had a shade more nuance, so that wasn't too bad.

Unknown said...

Best post ever! So glad to see I'm not the only person who's tired of angsty, bratty heroines. There was just a huge trend for years to have your heroine be a pouting, judgemental mess. :( :) Best part of the post was the bit about the Other Girls--so true. I can't like the heroine if she won't allow her enemies to be real people. Makes her look mean to refuse to give them a point of view. :)

Galadriel said...

I have to admit, I'm slightly prone to this in my own life, especially if I'm in a bad mood. As for my characters...I'll have to reexamine then, but I think the only one who might fall into that category evades it because A. the only person who hates her is her brother. And B. They're basically "preacher's kids" (except in another world) and he's a bit more of a rebel, so he feels she's too goody-two-shoes

Anonymous said...

Oh! As I was reading this, i gasped aloud, "Elsie!" Elsie Dinsmore, I cannot remember the author, has a serious case of Nobody Likes Me! Everyone around her abuses her, they all call her names, but she is a little perfect martyr who takes it all. I've read many other books with the same case, but that one jumped out most prominently. Wonderful post!

Hannah said...

How true! It's such an easy rut to fall into, especially when writing a fairytale retelling. Very convicting. :)

Ha, ha! I only read the first Elsie Dinsmore, then stopped, totally disgusted, because of her being Miss Perfection surrounded by jerks bordering on insane.

Psalms w guitar said...

This is an extremely insightful article Anne Elizabeth! It seems to me that the "nobody likes me" person is actually seeking acceptance in community.

But instead, what many of the fairytales and stories tend to do is have her (or him) gradually work their way through a set of mazes of bad guys and eventually conquer the obstacle and show everybody that she was really the absolute diamond in the rough of diamond in the roughs!

What I'm trying to do in my budding novel is to show acceptance and community as the answer for many.

But you've given me an idea: I'll make one of my characters start out as a "nobody likes me"rugged individual.

Sincere thanks, and I'm really enjoying "Heartless".

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

Okay, I am taking down the last couple of comments. This blog is not intended to be a place for argument. Everyone is entitled to her/his own opinions, but I don't want to see contention here on my "turf," so to speak.

Rachel6 asked if there is a forum for readers to take their comments about things they dislike in my stories. I don't know of any such forum and, the fact is, I don't want to know! It's discouraging enough dealing with negative reviews as it is. But I'm sure if readers want to, they can put together a forum for discussing Goldstone Wood ... I hope good as well as bad. Negative comments are not welcome here, however, and will be deleted. I have to protect my own emotional investment in this series.

I do not write my stories with the intention of irritating or offending any readers. They are simply the best I have to offer, and you may take them or leave them.

Rachel6 said...

Anne Elisabeth, I am so sorry; I hadn't meant to argue.

When I asked about a forum, I phrased myself very badly: I meant a fan forum in general, where we could take any discussions. I didn't mean a forum devoted to talking about the bad things, though I phrased it that way. I'm terribly sorry. That was rude and insensitive, and I should've thought more about my comment before I posted it.

I do enjoy your stories tremendously; "Heartless" was the finest allegorical fantasy I've read since The Chronicles of Narnia. My intention was more along the lines of supporting free speech, but I definitely put my foot in my mouth with my comment. Please forgive my thoughtlessness!

Unknown said...

Yes, YES, someone out there agrees with me! I was beginning to think I was all alone in disliking this "Nobody Likes Me" syndrome.

I agree that a lot of it starts with the authors feeling unattractive. I also think they hugely exaggerate the sufferings of the "Outcast" character because they've never been outcast very much in real life.(But they think it's a dramatic and popular character type that they want to use.)Stories instantly become more stilted and unrealistic if the writer doesn't really understand what he/she is describing.

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

@Rachel6--I didn't think you personally were arguing, it was simply that the overall vibe was becoming argumentative. I want people to feel free to state their opinions, but this particular exchange was beginning to look a bit sour from my perspective. I'm sure that's not what you intended!

And I certainly can forgive any misspeaking. I do it myself all the time! :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post! :)