Holly Jackson’s Good Girl, Bad Blood is the sequel to A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, following the protagonist, Pip, through her attempts to solve a second mystery. In the first book, she investigates the murder of a girl named Andie Bell, and in the second book we discover that she’s created a podcast about the whole incident. While the podcast approach is interesting, what caught my eye is that Pip briefly references a social media poll with the purpose of determining the most hated character, and Pip herself comes in fourth after a murderer, a rapist, and an abusive parent. Good Girl, Bad Blood spends a lot of time examining Pip’s attempts to be a good person, to be likable. It’s the likable side of this that I want to discuss, with likable standing both for a good person and an enjoyable concept.
I’ve written about character likability before, how it’s difficult to determine what constitutes as a likable character because people will have different opinions, and my fears that the concept of likability polices the types of stories that people can tell. People may consider Pip unlikable because she’s aggressive, perhaps somewhat manipulative when it comes to getting what she wants. In another book, her investigation style might be fitting for an antagonist. Good Girl, Bad Blood addresses this by inserting a villain who also is attempting to solve a mystery for what he considers to be the greater good, and we leave off the story with Pip wondering whether she’s really any different than him.
There’s a chart in the book Creating Characters that has a list of character traits that are fairly similar but called by different names. On one side, they are milder traits we might consider belonging to “good” people, while the other side has a harsher word that invokes “bad” people. (I seem to have lost the book under piles of other books, so I can’t give any examples…). The same trait in one person might be considered negative in another. Is Pip aggressive or determined? Both words have different connotations that lead to different interpretations of the character.
The question is, then, when are character or content traits acceptable and when are they not? Obviously, there are certain ones that are universally bad (Murder is never good, for example). I am in no way trying to defend genuinely bad people. I’m just curious about what personality we believe constitutes a hero, as good content, and what heroes, villains, and stories aren’t allowed to be. There are many different books of many different topics and it’s impossible to pin down any sort of agreement, so I will refer to mainstream culture, which I feel is equally useless of a label that probably means a lot of different things but hopefully can give me something to actually point at.
Of course, there’s the issue of diversity in films, that protagonists often don’t represent certain races, genders, sexualities, etc. as well as others. This is a huge issue that it seems like people are working on, but that needs to improve until people gain equal representation.
I’m curious also about general personality traits, like whether people better react to angry or sad characters. Of course, this subject ties into the general representation of minority versus majority groups. For example, people will probably view an angry woman differently than an angry man. (Really, I think part of the reason Pip is supposedly hated is that she’s a woman that doesn’t let people push her around). One of my personal character flaws, if you could call it that, is that I’m ridiculously shy. Obviously, I’m not a book character, so this wouldn’t be relevant except that I sometimes feel like it’s difficult to find shy characters in books, or if they exist, they are side characters or instantly become comfortable around their group of friends and their shyness stops mattering (If you know of any books that prove me wrong, please send them my way). Part of me thinks it’s an issue of having the book be interesting, that if your protagonist is afraid to talk to people, then it’ll be hard to get them to go search out important information or leave the house. And, to put it in official book reviewing terms, that’s boring. So, if you include shy characters, you have to put them into situations where they aren’t shy anymore or make them exist for the sake of being laughed at. Even as an amateur writer, I sometimes feel like I can’t write shy characters. When I was younger, all my protagonists were loud and aggressive like the Good Protagonist™ should be, and I think it’s only been more recently that I’ve started to write characters more like me. I draw on this particular example because it’s one I know well (and if I got into sexism this article would never end), but it’s definitely not the issue in most dire need of fixing. Being shy is inconvenient, but I’m not in danger because of it like people of color are because of their race.
To step away from my personal experience, I want to jump to talking about season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s basically exactly what it sounds like, except Buffy occasionally battles demons as well. But anyway, in season six, Buffy suffers from what I can best describe as depression and engages in destructive behaviors like sleeping with a vampire, Spike. An article in Entertainment Weekly by Samantha Highfill (a summary of the author’s opinions on the season) gives some examples of effective ideas dismissed because of likability. I don’t mean to call out this specific person, but it was one of the first articles I stumbled across) talks specifically about how “watching Buffy hate herself every time she slept with him was not enjoyable” (Highfill) and appears to list this as a negative part of the season. I agree that it’s incredibly uncomfortable, but I don’t think it’s a weakness for the season because it accomplishes exactly what it’s supposed to accomplish in showing us Buffy’s mental state. In this article, however, it’s considered bad (as in not well done. It is pretty bad as in damaging for Buffy) because it’s not really something we want to see. It’s the same for the season’s villains, a group of nerds that decide to make life miserable for Buffy for really no reason other than that they think it’s fun. The argument here is that “they simply don’t carry weight of a real big bad” (Highfill), which again might be true because they aren’t attempting to commit (much) murder or destroy the world. They’re simply misogynists, which, in a show that’s supposed to be incredibly feminist (though that sometimes fails at this), they’re really a perfect fit, and in my opinion they’re terrifying. However, since they don’t hold up to villainous standards, their type of evil is pushed to the side and thrown in the not-worth-acknowledging pile. Ok, to defend the article because I feel bad tearing holes in it like this, it’s clearly the author’s opinions. People are entitled to write about what they thought was effective and ineffective in any particular book or television show. I have opinions about what I like and dislike as well and am holding onto all sorts of biases that I have yet to identify. It’s just a good example of the expectations that exist for different plot lines or types of characters.
There are many facets to the debate of who’s stories should get to be told, and I feel like picking apart our definitions of who can be a hero, who is a villain, and who is ignored are important. I meant this to specifically be an article about character flaws, but I think the issue ties in too much with racism, sexism, ablism, and any form of discrimination to be spoken of separately. What I’m trying to say is that I want to examine that perfect character template and pull out the biases it’s made of, whether little or small, to explore their connections and continue to create mainstream media that reaches more people, rather than banishing different stories into obscurity.