The prevailing piece of advice for writers struggling to portray well developed characters is often: write a Good Character (which, let’s face it, tends to translate as ‘write how you would for a man’) and then switch the pronouns around. Legend has it that this is how we got Ellen Ripley, and it’s not necessarily the worst advice on its face. If nothing else, it’s an accessible starting point for writers who might otherwise be tempted to fall onto tired stereotypes or exile female characters to the fringes of their stories altogether. In fantasy and science fiction, worlds built from the ground up that can be entirely free from real world struggles and prejudices, it works even better. But stories set in our reality, past or present, are better served by an awareness of societal hardships based on race, class, gender, and sexuality (for the sake of the word count and my own knowledge base, and in honor of the just-passed International Women’s Day, we’ll stick with gender for the moment). And I can think of no better case study of how that awareness enriches character writing than one of the best horror movies to come out in years: The Babadook.
The plot of the film goes as follows: Amelia is a single mother whose husband was killed driving her to the hospital to deliver their child, a fact over which she is still a walking raw nerve seven years on. It doesn’t help that her current life is hanging together by a thread: her son Samuel builds elaborate weapons to ‘protect’ her from invisible monsters and causes problems at school, she has a soul sucking job for which she’s given up her career as a writer, and she can count on one hand the hour of sleep she gets in a night. One night Sam pulls a mysterious book called Mr. Babadook from his shelf, and by the time Amelia realizes this a terrible book to read to a child Sam’s already well and truly latched to the idea. He starts talking to the monster, and it’s not long before stressed out Amelia becomes convinced there’s something stalking the two of them after all. It’s a brilliant piece of character horror beautifully told, and to discuss it is necessarily to spoil it – so please do track it down if you’re at all interested before continuing.
I haven’t taken the time to praise the film’s wonderful makeup and oppressive grey color palette, but rest assured I’m thinking of them
There are many things worth praising about the film’s script: the understated character moments, the film’s subtle but total shift in perspective at the halfway point, its complete refusal to give any ‘tell’ that moves the titular creature from metaphor to unshakable reality; and its cleverness in seeding, Chekhov style, facts in the first act that will be critical in the third. But far and away the best is the writing of its lead role, and Essie Davis’ breathtaking performance. There’s more than a touch of Jack Torrence in Amelia (the novel version, anyway – for all that Kubrick’s film is impeccable horror, it isn’t too interested in a nuanced, tortured portrait of its star), but she’s more than that too. The film’s deft at getting us on Amelia’s side in the first half of the film, in understanding and sympathizing with her stress and sorrow and feelings of being trapped – all the better to understand Sam’s desire to ‘protect’ her as the signs of a clear pattern of parental abuse make themselves clear. Despite the film’s nightmare vision of parenting in the first third, Samuel is no Damien or Rhoda (look it up, kids). And Amelia is not an irredeemable person even as she does horrifying things (and while I personally find the film’s horror elements easy enough to compartmentalize that I wouldn’t call it terrifying in the expected sense, the portrait of domestic abuse is its own unflinching kind of horrific), and the film is stronger for focusing on healing the bond between two very wounded individuals rather than resting on a zero sum game of monster versus victim.
Also, movies with decent child actors should be held close and treasured
Meanwhile, a deep part of what makes Amelia feel true as a character is how she’s written as a woman. Writer/Director Jennifer Kent actually expressed uncertainty in writing the film that audiences would hate Amelia for her shortcomings as a parent, only to find that many viewers seemed to find it ‘reassuring’ on some level to see a flawed human being on the screen. And that’s what separates the film from a movie like Cristophe Gans’ Silent Hill, which also featured motherhood as a major theme. It isn’t a crime to write about mothers, or the bond between mothers and their children – but too often stories that do so fall into a dichotomy where the mother in question is either a laser-focused superhuman with no thoughts or life outside her child, or an icy individual whose lack of compassion for children is a key indicator of her villainy (I’m thinking of Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials off the top of my head, but take your pick).
Little known fact: All writers fear they will pen and then repress terrifying expressions of their own mental breakdowns
By contrast, while Amelia’s life might be defined by her status as a parent, her character is not. She has a range of relationships, even if they’re on the fringe of the all-consuming job that is parenting: from coworkers, to her sister, to the well-meaning elderly woman next door, and all of them give us some small piece of who she is as a character. At the same time, she comes up against expectations unique to her gender, most stark and suffocating in the quiet, staring disapproval of her sister’s friends over her failures as a mother (again, critical shading of the crushing pressure that’s driving Amelia’s crumbling mental state, but not the definition of who she is).
The script even goes one step beyond in creating that cage of expected identity for Amelia, working to a certain extent as a commentary of what a female character ‘should’ be. An enormous part of Amelia’s character arc is her unaddressed grief and trauma over her husband’s death, a fact that’s poisoned her relationship with her son and her ability to live her life with any kind of joy. Again, it works to define her – her love and her idolization of the memory of it – and the fact that is does so is killing her. It’s at the heart of the monster that stalks through the movie. Now quick, tell me some female characters in recent memory (never mind history, we’ll be here all day) who are written through their relationships, past and present, to men (I’ll start with Gamora and we can work out from there). It’s a startlingly frequent writing pitfall, and the film both knows and rejects the common workaround to the grieving widow subplot (the surprise visit from her coworker is a truly squirm inducing scene). The script’s not interested in healing Amelia through a new relationship, but in forcing her to deal with the past for the good of her family and the slow healing of her existing (predominantly female) relationships.
It’s a delicate balance, an understandably intimidating one, but the depth it helps create is undeniable in its effect: Amelia is both a character in her own right and one whose identity has grown in response to the pressures of society. She’s written using true aspects of very old stereotypes while being given room to be a living, breathing character – proof that old devices are not always unusable but should be handled with intelligence and care (who is this person versus what role does she play). That the writer understands this sort of pressure (as a woman, though not a parent herself) is a part of making that experience truer to life. But it isn’t impossible to write characters outside of one’s lived experience (nor should it be when that experience encompasses half of the human race), and stories like this can serve as guidelines even as they make excellent films (or books, or games, or series) in their own right.