Kill This Character: The Bitchy Cheerleader

| Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Today's Tune: Bitch

This concept came to me when I was considering characters that really didn’t work for me, and why they didn’t work. By way of a disclaimer, let me add here that this is only my opinion, of course, and is colored by my own preference.

One of the more important ideas to remember in characterization is to avoid cardboard, stereotypical characters. The same old character we’ve seen a hundred times could become someone new and interesting with some artful tweaking. Here I’ll talk about a character that doesn’t work for me, why I wasn’t taken by them, and what would make them more appealing to me. Onward!

Kill the Bitchy Cheerleader!

Who this character is: Well... she's a bitchy cheerleader. Or prom queen, or mean girl, or rich girl. The running theme is she's popular and she's a vicious jerk for no real reason. No one calls her on it, and all the girls around her are both terrorized by her and secretly want to be her. Often she's the girlfriend or recent ex-girlfriend of the male lead, who suddenly realizes he actually hates girls like her and really wants a sweet, quirky art student, despite the fact that he dated bitchpants for three years or whatever.

Why this character doesn't work for me: Soooooooo cliche. Oh wow, the captain of the cheer squad is a blond bitchaholic. Seen it.

Other than the glaring been-done-a-million-times-ish-ness of this character, the other major sticking point for me is how it paints the stereotypical picture of outcasts/nerds = always cool and kind, populars/jocks = always assholes. The world isn't black and white. Don't play into these tired stereotypes. Yes, there are often popular kids that make a sport of making fun of the "less fortunate." But there are some serious jerks in the unpopular crowd, as well. And some of the populars are popular because they're genuinely smart, good people.

Sometimes cheerleaders are actually - gasp! - really sweet girls. And sometimes the edgy art student with the blue hair is a snarky, nasty-mean butthead.

How to make this character work: Think outside the box. Skew the perception. Maybe your protagonist is actually the one making value judgments on a person before getting to know them. Avoid the outcasts vs. populars dichotomy. There can be social circle crossover if you allow it.

Let a cheerleader be popular because she's smart, nice and funny. Make the bitchy girl one of those elitist "I'm so uncool that I'm actually cool" people. Watch Drive Me Crazy. Totally cheesy flick, but it shakes up the perception of "popular always means jerk, unpopular always means awesome."

I don't mean to say that a popular kid shouldn't ever be a bully. That character works for a reason - it's realistic. However, it's also realistic that not everyone in the in-crowd is a terrible person. Throwing in a bitchy cheerleader to increase tension is kind of lazy. You can do better.

And in case you were wondering, no, I was never a cheerleader ;)


{ KarenG } at: March 31, 2010 at 8:30 AM said...

So with you on this one! Why do the popular pretty girls also have to be mean? Let's get original here! Mix it up-- have the prettiest girl in school also be the nicest. How refreshing would that be.

{ jjdebenedictis } at: March 31, 2010 at 8:39 AM said...

Another way to "kill" a stereotype is by adding depth. No real person is just skin deep, not even the uber-bitch blond cheerleader.

For example, if you can show her nastiness comes from deep self-loathing--that she slaps everyone else down as a balm to her own flattened ego--then you may be able to provoke some reader or protagonist sympathy for this toxic character. The end result is you kill the stereotype while still getting to use a common, recognizable trope.

{ Wendy Ramer } at: March 31, 2010 at 9:48 AM said...

I was so expecting you to have been a cheerleader, so thanks for the clarification ;-)I wasn't one either, nor was I particularly out of the social loop. So I think an interesting villain(ess) would be the girl who fits in with the middle crowd and unites them in vengeance against the nice popular kids and the charming quirky kids, forcing both sides of the coin to join forces and prove to the midd-of-the-roaders that nice goes both ways (no sexual pun intended).

{ maybe genius } at: March 31, 2010 at 12:30 PM said...

Another great point, JJ! Yes, give a bully more depth, as opposed to just having them be mean because the protagonist needs an antagonist.

A nice example of this is Quinn from Glee. She starts out as a very cardboard blond bitchy cheerleader. But as the first season progressed, she was given more depth and emotion, and she grew as a character.

{ Christi Goddard } at: March 31, 2010 at 5:04 PM said...

I try to avoid cliche characters or have a twist to them, but sometimes it's just true that stereotypes exist for a reason. There's a math involved when it comes to ratio of *certain trait* people do *this.* With that in mind, I'll allow a cliche so long as there's a twist and/or surprising depth/cause for behavior.

{ Tahereh } at: April 3, 2010 at 10:39 PM said...

lol great post!

very true -- i think as a general rule we need to avoid stereotypes as much as possible. sometimes it works, but the over-done caricatures can really get annoying after awhile.

thanks for sharing!!

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