TW: Mentions of death, murder, and bullying.
They are tall, brooding, most likely have some kind of trauma, and became the most popular character in a series. And they are also a cruel murderer or bully.
With that two-sentence description, you may have at least one character in mind. Now, please imagine that same character with a paunchy body type. Make them smaller. Maybe even add a couple of wrinkles.
This way, is it easier to acknowledge that they made other characters miserable? Is it more difficult to love them?
It is a common thing in the different reader communities, especially YA, to ignore a character’s corruption just because the author has written them to fit our beauty standards. They can burn villages down or manipulate others, but we seem to forget it all because they are handsome. Somehow this makes them more human, and suddenly, there may be a list of justifications, of “buts”, of “maybes”. We try to avoid the fact that they take advantage of others' fears and insecurities, because they have pretty eyes or defined jawlines.
Excusing cruelty with allure
There are so many things wrong with this trend Young Adult, and their different fanbases, are creating. The first: toxic beauty standards. This specific trope takes advantage of stereotypical beauty, and stereotypical alone. That unreachable, perfect, edited beauty. It uses and supports unrealistic characteristics, which lie to people, telling them that they aren’t good enough.
It already exploits beauty standards. The next problem comes with ignoring the toxic traits of the character or even thinking they somehow contribute to their allure. One smile erases ten insults. By doing this, we are also normalizing dangerous behaviors.
To explain this point, here’s another example: President Snow. He is the villain of The Hunger Games trilogy, and when he’s first introduced, he is an eighty-year-old man, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of children. He’s despised by readers. The author, Suzzane Collins, released a prequel to the series last year, which has young Snow as the main character. The reader quickly realizes that he has been obsessive, cruel, and narcissistic since his youth. He manipulates other characters in the prequel as much as he does in the main trilogy. Even though this book never tries to justify his actions, it’s strange to wonder what would have happened if Suzzane decided to release the prequel before the trilogy. Because young Snow fits into the standardized beauty too. Would readers treat young Snow and President Snow as completely different characters? Would he be given pretty privilege? Probably.
Support vs Interest
The next dilemma with these characters is if there are other reasons for the readers to prefer them. Often, we can find characters interesting without supporting them. But there is a thin line between the two of them. We can admire an author’s or an actor’s skills. The way they convey emotion and use their craft to create someone so different from themselves. We can recognize their hard work, how they sculpt complex traits and backgrounds. As humans, it is part of our nature to find such complexity interesting. It wakes our curiosity up. However, we need to acknowledge the terrible actions the character makes and their rotten moral and ethical values. This way, we are not stepping a foot into the side of support. Even better, we can recognize similar patterns in real life and take action against them.
An example of intrigue without support is the Joker. In many cases, comic readers and movie/series watchers find the madness of the character interesting. Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix, and other actors/voice actors all made performances that drew the attention of both public and critics, for the best or the worst. Writers who presented the Joker into their stories all had a difficult task at hand. But the actions of the character himself remain atrocious. Though opinions are varied, the vast majority won’t justify, or ignore them. And, back to the first point, he was never intended to have pretty privilege. The essence of the character is cruel and crazy, and that’s what the audience sees and understands.
All kinds of media work as different reflections of society. Archetypes in literature become archetypes in society and vice versa. It is important to remember that not everything is black and white, and most characters will be dyed in a shade of grey. So giving questionable characters support because they have “beautiful” traits may seem harmless in the beginning. There’s always the possibility of a redemption arc, right? But as we think about it, we realize how this normalizes toxic behaviors and patterns. They are not just fictional characters anymore. If we give them a pass, how much more likely are we to ignore, or even promote, red flags in real life? This is our reminder to consume media with awareness.
is a young planster with too much passion and too little time on a day. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, whether they are thoroughly researched flash fiction pieces or improvised bedtime stories.