Sunday, July 03, 2005

G&G

If you're the parent of a child in America, you have read at least one issue of Highlights magazine. Long ago, some very smart marketing person at Highlights said, "Hey, let's put free copies in every doctor's office in the country. That might snag us some subscribers."

I don't know if the subscription angle worked, but I've been reading this rag for the last twenty-five years. I've lost count of the number of Science in Action articles I've explained and Hidden Pictures I've tried to find for my sniffly progeny (I can never find the freaking hammer. Never.) I know one thing -- if I don't see a copy of Highlights at a doctor's office, I leave, because the guy's medical license is obviously counterfeit.

I don't have anything against Highlights. It's hard enough to entertain a kid with strep throat during the obligatory hour sick room wait. Still, there's one thing in the mag that has always bothered me: the Goofus and Gallant (TM) page. For you parents with extremely healthy children, G&G are two comic boy characters who teach kids how to make good choices.

Gallant is the good boy, naturally, who always does the right thing. He's clean, neat, his hair is combed and he's forever smiling while he walks little old ladies across busy intersections only when the WALK light comes on. Gallant is kind and generous and always shares, and never, never runs out into the street after a fouled kickball.

The comic never offers much backstory, but I can guess what kind of life Gallant has: perfect. He lives in a pretty little Brady Bunch house in the nice part of town with Donna, his sweet mother, Rex, his manly father, and Muffy, his adorable sister. They have a dog named Rover, and Rex drives a station wagon to work while Donna cleans and makes delicious, well-balanced meals. At night they play board games or watch Disney movies together.

Yet this happy family might have some dark secrets. I've always suspected that Gallant and Muffy were secretly adopted. Donna and Rex remind me too much of Doris and Rock, and you know how unlikely it was that they, you know, [insert RWA approved phrase]. Also, who names their son Gallant? Did Mom & Dad even consider the nicknames the kid is going to be stuck with? Gal, Gall, Ant?

Goofus, on the other hand, is definitely the bad boy. He usually shows up scruffy or dirty, with his wrinkled shirt tails hanging out and his hair mussed. He doesn't look especially goofy, but instead glowers and scowls as he runs around kicking old ladies and throwing baseballs at oncoming traffic. He couldn't make a good choice if he stole it out of your locker at school.

Goofus is kind of cute, actually.

Okay, to me the bad boy is always more interesting than the good one. Especially Goofus, who is more like a real child, in his hostile, selfish and possibly psychotic way. Goofus is a force of nature; he doesn't mess with people unless it's to give them a reality check. Unlike that insufferable boy scout Gallant, who can't do anything wrong.

Now that I think about it, Goofus is probably the victim of a terrible home life. Sure, he's mean as a stepped-on snake, and only makes friends with kids named Chainsaw and Skull, but what chance does he have? Orphaned so young after Mom and Dad blew up in the home meth lab accident, and now stuck living at the trailer park with his drunk unemployed construction worker Uncle Rufus and his jailbait girlfriend Bobbie Sue. Look at how pale and skinny he is. Kid's probably been raised on a steady diet of Fritos, government block cheese and what lukewarm Budweiser Uncle Roof forgot to guzzle from the can. . .

Anyway. There is a writing lesson to be learned from G&G. When you go back to work on your WIP today, check out your characters and look for this Hidden Picture: Goofus and Gallant. Because we want the reader to cheer for our heroes and boo our villains, too often we write in dead ringers for G&G. So if you discover that you've got the Hitler Youth or Psycho Boy in your novel, try a little retooling. Let your characters be real people, not cartoon morality lessons.

13 comments:

  1. My new protag is a bad boy. While he gets along with his first wife, she is forever getting him out of scrapes because he gets drunk and goes to his second (also an ex) for booty calls. His best friend's a Russian mobster and he eats vicodin the way I eat M&M's (or did until the doctor told me my liver and pancreas hate me.)

    The bad guy is a charming, Harvard educated politician.

    What morality lessons can we draw from this besides "Don't drink while on vicodin?"

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  2. Good god. Someone else who always thought Goofus was the cuter one.

    To this day, I go straight for the Highlights when I'm at a doctor's office. WAY better than People magazine.

    Amusingly, I was just pondering the believability of the foil of my main character. She's Gallant on the outside, but her creamy center is far from endearing. Not surprising; I modeled her on some of the cheerleaders I knew from high school.

    Take that, you pom-pom waving freaks.

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  3. My lord, I haven't thought of Highlights in years. As I don't have children, there I don't usually have the necessity to visit the doctor's waiting room or entertain anyone else when I do, but since I had some serious tonsil problems when I was younger, I read the maganzine on a fairly regular basis. I even remember boldly asking the nurse if they had the new issue when Mom checked us in.

    Goofus and Gallant -- tales from my past.

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  4. My lord, I haven't thought of Highlights in years. As I don't have children, there I don't usually have the necessity to visit the doctor's waiting room or entertain anyone else when I do, but since I had some serious tonsil problems when I was younger, I read the maganzine on a fairly regular basis. I even remember boldly asking the nurse if they had the new issue when Mom checked us in.

    Goofus and Gallant -- tales from my past.

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  5. oy.

    And the timbertoeswhatsit, the bizarre wooden family. What do they represent in fiction?

    When I was a kid, Dr. D had Highlights and Bible Lesson Stories in the waiting room. The one story I always made sure to dig up and read was about a kid who finds religion. He then gets hit by a car--great illustration of a big black car crashing into him. Swathed in bandages lying in bed, the kid manages to prop up his arm in an attitude of prayer. And then he DIES. But it's okay, because he goes to heaven. He had his arm propped the right way, you see. Wonderful thing for a pediatrician's office--story about a kid who DIES. I loved it.

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  6. Goofus was definitely the hottie of the pair, to my mind, but then I used to hold my breath wishing the little plastic door in a game of Mystery Date would swing wide to reveal the Skeevy Beach Bum dude.

    I find the hammer. It's that damn Liberty Bell I can't ever locate, even though it's always the donkey's left-hand stirrup.

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  7. Man, did this bring up memories for me. I loved reading Highlights when I was a kid -- and Goofus and Gallant taught me nothing.

    But my favorite kid magazine was Jack & Jill. Is it still around? My first publication credit (sort of) was when I got an honorable mention for an ending to one of their Baba Yaga stories when I was in third grade or thereabouts.

    That's a pretty hilarious way to illustrate the problem of creating the hero and the villain. Thanks. Happy Fourth of July!

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  8. My baddies are always bad for a reason, not just *mwuahaha* evil. But my heroes - well, some of them are a tad too noble, especially those from my first novel. Only now, during the Forward Motion 2YN course, have I developed truly three-dimensional characters all over the place. But the other ones are not beyond redemption lol; I'm getting a pretty good gripe on the heroes of my Roman Empire triad and give them generic flaws.

    In case of my too noble characters from "Kings and Rebels", I think this in itself can be a weakness. Imagine one of the old ladies Gallant helped across the street is a really bad witch and would better have been run over by a car. Now she'll keep eating little kids.

    Someone has to learn a lesson here. *evil grin*

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  9. We don't have Goofus and Gallant in Germany, but we have the (in)famous Struwelpeter and the Häschenschule (Little Rabbits's School) where one of the rabbits, Max, is a naughty boy who never does his homework, talks through the lessons, starts fights and destroys some furniture. I was sorta fascinated by Max; I knew what he did was bad but I suspected he had a lot more fun than the good little rabbits.

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  10. Jack & Jill is still in publication, Doug -- my daughter subscribed to it until third grade, when she fell in love with yard excavation. Now we subscribe to Dig magazine. :)

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  11. LOL,

    While I can't say that Goofus appealed to me because I was always neat and tidy as a kid, Gallant made my teeth ache. I was good on the outside and a hellion on the inside. My parents are still finding out some of the things I did and shrinking back in horror :D.

    That said, I'm hoping that my characters don't show up that way. Most of them I can emphatically say "of course they don't" to, but there's one that just went out to critters.... Well, guess I'll see what people say. Maybe he needs more than just an intolerance of stupidity to tarnish him (exaggerating for effect, I hope :)).

    Good lesson. Thanks.

    Cheers,
    Margaret

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  12. I could never find the hammer, either.

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  13. My parents are still finding out some of the things I did and shrinking back in horror :D.


    That does sound sorta familiar, lol.

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