There is a double-standard so common
in the way we judge people that it is almost invisible. Everybody does it. I do
it. Iíll bet you do it. And if youíre clever, the characters in your books will
do it too.
The double-standard is in how we view
mistakes: we interpret our own failings as the result of circumstance, but use
the failings of others as evidence of obvious and tragic character flaws within
them. For example, if Iím late itís because of traffic lights and a little old
lady in the car ahead of me who didnít understand how to work her gas pedal. But
if youíre late itís because you are obviously incompetent at planning and time
Psychologists call this phenomenon the
ďfundamental attribution error,Ē which is a useless name that doesnít tell you
anything. I prefer to call it what it is. Itís a double standard, and we do it
for an obvious reason: we know everything about our own circumstances, but much
less about anybody elseís.
People donít walk around with their
circumstances nicely labeled for us in glowing word-bubbles floating above them.
We canít tell just by looking why a co-worker was late for an important meeting.
Perhaps he is actually lousy at time management. But perhaps he was talking to
his aged mother who lives three states away, in a panic because his father
slipped in the shower and she didnít know what to do.
If we could see that just by looking,
weíd give the guy a break for taking five minutes to calm his mother down and
get her to call 9-1-1. But that part is invisible to us. All we see is him
coming into the meeting late and with a sheepish look on his face.
Thatís the fundamental double
standard, and thereís a lot writers can do with it.
Create sympathy: If you want readers to sympathize
with somebody who screws up, just make sure readers know the circumstances that
cause the mistakes. Third-person omniscient novels give us particular freedom to
show our readers these circumstances. Mind you, donít explain everything all the
time. But used selectively, revealing the circumstances can work very well to
Show positive personality traits: If you want to show
a character as being fair-minded, empathetic, et cetera, show them consciously
working to avoid this double standard. Show them trying to think of what
circumstances might have contributed to another characterís mistakes. Even the
simple act of reserving judgment until the evidence is in, rather than jumping
to conclusions, can work wonders for casting that character as thoughtful and
Create a hothead or unreliable flake: The
flip-side is to maximize a characterís application of the double standard. What
is a reader likely to think about a character who is quick to condemn others,
but who goes to great lengths to explain away his own failings? Someone who
constantly blames others for being imperfect, but who always has a handful of
justifications at the ready to excuse his own imperfections? Weíve all met