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Monday, April 4, 2011

Character Stereotypes: The Doormat

Main Entry: door•mat
Pronunciation: \dôrˈmăt\
Function: noun
1 : One who submits meekly or offers little resistance to domination, mistreatment, abuse, or indignities by others

We’ve all heard of and probably known a few doormats. These are the people pleasers who will do anything for anyone, sometimes at the expense of their own well-being. What the above definition doesn’t explain, though, is why.

As a therapist, the answer to that question is what I am most interested in. What makes someone so passive? What motivates these people to accept being taken advantage of or even being abused? If you have characters in your WIP running ragged and flagging out because they can’t say no, you need to have a plausible reason why they are this way. Below are two potential components for the backstory of a doormat.

Conditional Love

At the heart of many a doormat is the yearning for validation. They will take it in any form and do just about anything to get it. This could be because their parents never validated them for just being themselves.

You can see how difficult it might be for someone like this to accept Christ’s unconditional love. They probably grew up with parents who told them what to do and gave them attention and love only when they obeyed. This is conditional love, the overarching reason for many a doormat to submit to others. When they do so, they are using the best method they know of to get love or validation.

For those writers who want their doormat characters to have happy families of origin, then consider a painful breakup in early adulthood. Maybe the doormat doesn’t want to risk heartbreak again by offending or disagreeing with his or her partner.

Loss of Value

(I use the example of a female here because girls are trained from a young age to oblige and defer to others, so the percentage of female doormats is disproportionate to the percentage who are male.)

A doormat doesn’t have any idea how valuable her person or actions are. This would start in childhood, perhaps because her parents never encouraged or praised her for being assertive or stepping out on her own. Her self-esteem compass is broken, if not nonexistent.

The measure of the doormat’s validity, then, comes from an outside source, such as a boyfriend/girlfriend or mother/father or best friend. When she meets the demands of other people, making them happy, the takeaway value for the doormat is that they are happy with her as well. If they aren’t happy, then the doormat absorbs the responsibility for making them that way, and fear takes root that if she doesn’t double over backward to please these people, then they won’t love her.

Of course, we can’t leave a character in this mental space. It’s too unhealthy. What can you do to help “cure” them of their doormat-ness?

Click here to read the rest of my article in Christian Fiction Online Magazine.

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Sierra Gardner said...

This is really interesting! I tend to be a little bossy (oldest kid =) so I have to be careful to not take advantage of people who are overly obliging. Thanks for the info - I'll remember it next time I run into someone with this trait.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Hi, Jeannie!

I've missed you! I hope all is well with you and that you are well settled now!

As I read this I thought one would have to be very careful to write an MC as a true doormat character. They might come across as very needy in the way of needing a backbone and I'm not very tolerant of that, especially if it's the hero who has this issue. But certainly is a great one for a huge character arc!!

Cecilia Marie Pulliam said...

Great suggestions and insight. As always, the key to great characters is the story behind their actions - their motives. Thank you for a look behind this character's curtain.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.