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.