If you’re a girl who read Harry Potter while you grew up, it’s likely you looked up to Miss Granger, the superiorly intelligent, spunky, and not always most beautiful girl in every classroom at Hogwarts.
Or perhaps you read other books, like the more classic Anne of Green Gables, and looked up to the imaginative redhead who was as sensitive to beauty as she was to the slight pinprick of a slight.
Or maybe you saw Jo from Little Women, and followed her story of writing and romping with her sisters. You admired the girl who was so independent that she could not even be captured by a predictable plot.
Regardless of who you looked up to, you probably loved a certain heroine, and had dreams of being like her someday. Whether that be her intelligence, her beauty, or her kindness, you saw in her something that you wanted to be.
The common trait behind each of these female characters is good writing, and in good writing comes complexity—even in children’s stories. Each character has a good side and a bad side explicitly mentioned, yet we mostly focus on the good while we look up to them.
Hermione Granger is ostentatiously a Know-It-All in the first order. She is not the most socially intelligent girl in school, and she has a withering crush on RON WEASLEY for 7 years before she makes a move. She is, definitively, not cool. And yet, we see her for what she is more often than what we see her for what she is not.
Anne of Green Gables sees the good quite easily and is moved to great heights, but she also falls into the pits of despair just as quickly. She is the opposite of emotionally stable, even as she grows up. Anne has an enormous temper. And yet, we see her in the positive light of her imagination rather than in the dark side of what her sensitivity drives her too.
Lastly, Jo is stubborn. She loves her younger sister, Beth, for the softness and gentleness she does not have. She recognizes this weakness and this craving for independence in herself as she gets older, but the only thing we recognize is the strength of the other traits that exist alongside this.
We see book characters, thanks to the way the narrative is laid out, according to the good in them. We see and remember their victories much more than any loss they may endure. In other words, we give them the benefit of the doubt and the trust that they are a hero in the story, not a villain or an unimportant tangent.
This is not the way we think of ourselves in daily life. More often than not, we look at ourselves as characters in a skewed way, removed from context, and maybe even with the perception of ourselves as off or as simply bad. We do not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, but perhaps put ourselves on trial to prove that the good is there, alongside the bad.
We take many stories—lovely and ugly—from our childhoods. We take stories about fairies, about others, about the worlds, and about ourselves. These can be true, false, damaging, uplifting, and everything in between, but the most impactful ones are often the ones we learn about ourselves.
When you encounter stories about yourself today, check them the way an author would check theirs. Check it like this:
Does this story get at the complexities of the character?
Does this trait make sense in the context of the story, or does it assume the worst?
Does this story ring true and authentic, or does it reduce this many-faceted character to a flat pancake of who they actually are?
It is a big ask to try to have someone go from thinking of themselves as an antagonist to a protagonist. It is difficult to switch one word in the thought, “I am bad” to “I am good”—even if the latter statement is the truest.
One step on the way there, though, can be switching how we ask questions and make assumptions about ourselves. Instead of assuming the worst traits or the worst stories, let’s ask how our favorite author would write about this character—good and bad—if they liked them. We may find a happier and truer story in this gentle way than we could have otherwise imagined.
We may just find ourselves on the same side as our childhood heroes.