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Toxic Messages in Fiction Part 2

Last week, we began an exploration of some of the toxic messages buried in fiction and other forms of entertainment. Once you recognize them, they are easier to avoid. To reinforce, I am not saying you cannot portray severely damaged characters, but that you are responsible for how you slant the portrayal.

#7 Happily Ever After

The Romance camera stops rolling when the lovers make a commitment to a relationship. However, a relationship is like a bank account. It takes five deposits for every withdrawal, meaning the ratio of positive moments has to outnumber the negative ones by a wide margin. 

Which is why I have a problem with a partner who treats the other badly (whatever the particular reason cited by the plot) and with the turn of a page in the fourth act, all is forgiven. There needs to be an apology and amends made before the healing can begin. The partner needs to change his or her behavior and regain trust and that doesn't happen overnight. I am not saying there shouldn't be conflict or misunderstandings, but that outright pathological behavior should not be easily forgiven and forgotten.

Love is a very different animal from lust. A healthy relationship involves trust, shared values and goals, mutual respect, financial equality regardless of who earns more, and a desire to meet each other’s romantic and sexual needs. It takes healthy communication and healthy boundaries. 
It is damned hard work.

This is why I prefer literary stories that explore the messiness and difficulty in achieving a healthy relationship over the rose-colored romance genre. Coming together is easy. Staying together is the real challenge.

#8 Desirable Bachelor Versus Spinster

I call this the George Clooney Syndrome. Men who choose not to marry are considered a challenge to single ladies: the white lion to be hunted and tamed. All it takes is the “right” woman to win him. Women who choose not to marry are considered spinsters, losers in the game of love to be pitied and banished to a house full of cats. This is a sexist double standard. 

We need to be solid alone before we can be with someone else. People with an inadequate sense of self, who feel they must have someone else complete them and create their happiness have serious work to do. Being single and on your own is a viable option as well.

#9 The Irresistible Bad Boy/Girl

He’s cheeky, a little devious, but clever, and oh so handsome that you forgive his naughty ways. This makes me physically nauseated. In real life, men or women with poor boundaries and toxic behavior should be avoided.

Women in particular are led to believe they can cure the bad boy. They just have to be loyal, love him long enough, and turn themselves into pleasing pretzels to curb their lover’s behavior.

The sad truth is, guys are just as at risk from bad girls. They are also told it is okay to put up with a raving witch, even a physically and emotionally abusive one. He is supposed to be the hero after all.

Bad boys/girls do not make good romantic partners. They are often low-level narcissists or sociopaths. They are guilty of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse.

Too many stories subtly make excuses for abusive acts that should never be tolerated. If they are engaged in criminal behavior, they will drag their partner down with them. If they are addicts, their behavior and associates can be dangerous.

Fiscal and emotional infidelity are not acceptable either.

I am not saying a flawed character cannot be rehabilitated, or even that love cannot inspire them to do it. Just that it is important to differentiate those doing the work to reclaim their lives from those that aren't.

Toxic relationships are not fun little strolls on the wild side that will immediately change once you "put a ring on it."

#10 The Lost/Broken One

This is the flip side of the Bad Boy meme. The heroic girl or the noble guy rescues the broken one. All it takes is their love to heal them and return them to emotional health. 

Seriously broken people need to fix themselves before they are ready for a relationship. They may be victims of abuse who in turn become an abuser. 

They need professional help and should do the work before embarking on a relationship.  If that happens and they come back repaired, then a relationship might be possible. You could even be their friend while they to do the work.

I'm not saying characters should be perfect people. No one is perfect. No one is without baggage. Flaws make your characters three dimensional. I'm saying the pathologically flawed should not be normalized.

Relationships, especially marriage, should not be a major renovation project. If a person is toxic, they will not absorb the love. They will use it against you.

#11 Normalizing Abuse

Signs of a toxic relationship that are used for romantic conflict and subtly promote abusive behavior include: 

~The emotional roller coaster, blowing hot and cold, and constant conflicts that leave you uncertain about the relationship.

~ Extreme moodiness and pushing the partner away then drawing them back in.

~Isolation from friends and family for your own good or their safety.

~Jealousy over relationships with others.

~ Arguments that escalate quickly. Put downs, name calling, and screaming are verbal abuse.

~ Justifying constant criticism with, "I'm sorry but you know it's true." or "I am telling you this for your own good." 

~ Justifying affairs or liaisons with someone else or waiting around for them to “end it” with someone else.

~ Flirting with other people as a “joke” or to make their partner jealous

~ Humiliating or embarrassing each other in public.

~ Accepting a position of ”superior” or “inferior."

~ Feeling responsible for a partner’s emotional state or walking on eggshells around them.

~ Trapped by circumstances to stay in the relationship or enduring an abusive relationship because of the belief that it will end happily ever after.

~ Feeling like they are the problem or need to change to make things better.

~ Controlling behavior (it’s for your own good).

~ Saying things like: you’ll never do better than me or I'll die without you. 

#12 Love hurts

Not true. Love should be comforting. You can ache with longing for someone. In fact, longing is the key emotion that your readers resonate with. Your lovers can feel hope or anxiety about the success of a relationship. They will have conflicts. But if they are experiencing soul crushing pain, that is a symptom that something is really wrong – with them. If they need a relationship so bad that to not have it means emotional death, they have some work to do. It comes back to characters should be perfectly fine on their own. The relationship should augment not “complete” them.

In a world rife with dysfunction, it has never been more important to portray good characters and healthy choices. It is time to offer role models that inspire readers to be the hero in their own life.

To conclude, just because these memes are prevalent throughout the fiction world doesn’t mean we have to keep perpetuating them. We can change perception one plot, one book, and one screenplay at a time.

For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.

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