The Fundamental Double-Standard
by Jason Black
There is a double-standard so common in the way we judge people that it is almost invisible. Everybody does it. I do it. I’ll bet you do it. And if you’re 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 I’m late it’s because of traffic lights and a little old lady in the car ahead of me who didn’t understand how to work her gas pedal. But if you’re late it’s because you are obviously incompetent at planning and time management.
Psychologists call this phenomenon the “fundamental attribution error,” which is a useless name that doesn’t tell you anything. I prefer to call it what it is. It’s a double standard, and we do it for an obvious reason: we know everything about our own circumstances, but much less about anybody else’s.
People don’t walk around with their circumstances nicely labeled for us in glowing word-bubbles floating above them. We can’t 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 didn’t know what to do. If we could see that just by looking, we’d 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.
That’s the fundamental double standard, and there’s 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, don’t explain everything all the time. But used selectively, revealing the circumstances can work very well to create sympathy.
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 character’s 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 compassionate.
Create a hothead or unreliable flake: The flip-side is to maximize a character’s 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? We’ve all met people like this, who always think the best of themselves and the worst of others, and we rarely like them. Show a character acting that way in your book, and readers will form exactly the same opinions.
Show denial: People really do screw up because of core character flaws. Nobody’s perfect. But sometimes others will work extremely hard to find circumstantial explanations for other people’s failings. To make excuses. A cliché example is a spouse who covers for a partner’s substance abuse problems, but there are many others. While we never have all the information about another person’s circumstances, we always have some; the difference between commendable fair-mindedness and denial is in how we heed or ignore the evidence we do have, especially when such willful ignorance perpetuates a situation that has negative consequences for us.
Create a Pollyanna: A Pollyanna (who can be male or female, despite the name) is a hopelessly optimistic or naive character who always looks on the bright side, despite any and all evidence to the contrary. This is very similar to the denial case, but unlike the denial character, a Pollyanna isn’t affected by the other person’s mistakes. The Pollyanna thus has no reason for positive or negative bias, but nevertheless refuses to think badly of anybody, ever. Usually, Pollyannas will invent hypothetical excuses, like "I’ll bet he just had car trouble," without any basis to them. That’s not a character whose judgment readers will trust, since they’re ignoring what is obvious for all to see. Pollyannas can be very useful in mystery novels as a means of misdirection, precisely because readers won’t trust their judgment.
Create a dramatic twist: This one is my favorite. While you’re busy letting various characters fall prey to the fundamental double standard, why not invite readers to do it too? This is one of the most effective techniques I know of for shifting a reader’s perception of a character from negative to positive, or vice versa. To do it, let any relevant viewpoint character apply the double standard to someone, but don’t make it too obvious that something else is going on with that person. Chances are readers will go right along with the viewpoint character’s mistaken assessment. Later, reveal the circumstances that were behind the other character’s perceived mistakes, and use that information to pivot everyone’s attitudes about that person.
Those five applications of the fundamental double standard cover most of the obvious situations, but I’m sure you can think of other ways to apply it as well. Just remember that while you know everything about all your characters, they never know as much about each other as they know about themselves.
Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com.