Diablo Cody on Why We're All Narcissists

Paramount Pictures

In the past, I’ll admit, I’ve enjoyed being compared to the protagonists in my screenplays. I’m tickled when friends say they "see me" in spunky little Juno MacGuff—or even poor, bedeviled Tara Gregson from United States of Tara. But when my husband pointed out how similar I am to Mavis Gary, the antiheroine of my latest project, Young Adult, I was a little put off. It wasn’t exactly a compliment. But was it true?

Mavis (played by the lovely Charlize Theron) is a bitter, 30-something Minnesotan who’s dissatisfied, even disgusted, by her station in life. Initially it’s hard to see why Mavis isn’t happier. She’s a tall, stunning blonde who has fulfilled her dream of writing young-adult fiction. She’s more successful than most of the small-town folks she left behind (a fact of which she’s comically aware).

However, Mavis’s humble peers possess something that eludes her more each year: growth. They’ve matured into seasoned adults with perspective and humility, while Mavis continues to flail in a self-created hell of reality TV, fashion magazines, blind dates, and booze. When Mavis finds out via email that her high-school sweetheart, Buddy, has become a father, it sends her off the proverbial deep end—waterproof mascara in hand. Mavis abruptly leaves her condo in Minneapolis, jumps into her car, and heads back to her hometown of Mercury to break up Buddy’s marriage and reclaim him as hers and hers alone.

Sounds like a nice lady, right? You can see why when my husband, Dan, said, "You’re a lot like Mavis," I had hoped he meant physically. (Alas, I can be delusional but not that delusional.) Even though I created Mavis as I wrote the script, I always tried to keep her at arm’s length from my psyche. Sometimes I bond deeply with my characters during the writing process; with Mavis, I deliberately kept a safe distance. Sure, I shared some of her qualities (hatred of baby showers, love of Diet Coke, and occasional bouts of stalkerlike behavior). But I was also repelled by her narcissism, her casual cruelty, and, most of all, her desire to unseat Buddy’s wife and child as the center of his universe.

"I’m nothing like Mavis," I said at the time, waving off the comparison with a laugh (and a silent vow to create an even more unflattering character based on Dan). However, upon further reflection, I realized that Dan was even more right than he may have known: not only am I like Mavis, just about every young to middle-aged adult I know is like Mavis.

Before you get as offended as I did, allow me to explain. Sure, we’re not all deranged home wreckers in pursuit of past glory. But if the era of Facebook and Twitter has fed any monsters, it’s those of vanity, self-obsession, and immaturity. Who among us hasn’t Googled an ex, or measured our own online social circle against that of a perceived rival, or snapped multiple "profile photos" in an attempt to find the best angle? Who hasn’t caught herself watching an episode of Jersey Shore and thought, "I’m a grown-up. Why am I concerned with these people and their sex lives?" (If you haven’t done these things, I commend you. Seriously. Thanks for reading this far.)

I’m glad that as a 33-year-old working mother, I can still choose to wear a Hello Kitty T-shirt or stay up late scrolling through the Twitter feed of my junior-high crush. (Hi, Justin! I’m watching your every move!) That said, can it really be healthy for us to constantly relive, rehash, and regurgitate the experiences of our youth? It’s hard to learn from the present when you’re mired in the past. In Mavis’s case, it’s her fatal flaw, the one that drives her to a place that’s past "cute" and all the way to Crazytown.

As a screenwriter on the Q&A circuit, many people ask, "So, where do your characters come from?" I’m often tempted to reply in the style of a parent being questioned about sex: "Well, when a writer loves her MacBook very, very much, she sometimes applies her fingers to the keys and creates pretend people. And after a lengthy development process—plus adequate financial backing—these people sometimes come to life!"

Actually, it’s not such a silly metaphor. Just as humans are created from elaborate matrices of ancestral traits, fictional characters, too, resemble the people who create them. Even stock romantic-comedy heroines (who are written and rewritten in Hollywood boardrooms for maximum "likability") carry traces of DNA from the hands that craft them. Even at our most inventive, we are what we write.

So I’ve accepted it: I am like Mavis. Mavis came from me. But she also came from you. And for that reason, I’ve grown to love her just a little.

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