Monday, October 15, 2007

On Preconceived Notions

"Criticism is prejudice made plausible."
H. L. Mencken

You could call it prejudice, but I'm not talking about race, sex, or ethnicity, here. I'm talking about our silly notions on character.
For example, even though I am a night owl myself, or maybe becauseI am a night owl myself, I have this notion that early risers are better people. They are not just good at waking up early, they are more efficient, harder working, and pure at heart.

So I make my protagonist, Hallie Ahern, an early riser.

I might chalk it up to my own weirdness, except that a good friend always makes her protagonist a bit messy. Why? My friend is almost Felix Unger-neat, and she swears that people like messy people better than neat people.

Why does sneezing through an allergy make a character seem weak, I wonder, when suffering through a more major illness, like a heart attack, make a character seem dramatic?

My brother confessed that he thinks people who wear a lot of purple are overly emotional. But that's completely wrong. People who wear a lot of purple are more artistic than the rest of us.

Seriously though, early risers aren't more noble, messy people aren't more loveable, and the kind of illness you suffer doesn't say anything about your inner core. I'm wondering where these connections come from, whether they are universal or idiosyncratic, and how they work themselves into our fiction.

HALLIE: I think a lot of us make our protagonists more noble, taller, thinner, and handsomer, and generally just plain better on all dimensions than we are ourselves. Our villains, the opposite. I knew a writer who was constantly dieting and all of the bad guys in her novel were fat.

Which points out a pitfall--we often write from cliche. It is, as you suggest, sort of a built-in to be aware of. This is why, as Jan is always pointing out, your first idea is rarely your best. And my own aphorism: if you don't surprise yourself, you'll never surprise your reader.

RO: Yes, I have to be careful not to make all of the tall, thin blondes evil or stupid. (What does thst say about my average brunette self?) I have a blonde bimbo in book two and Stuart Kaminsky called me on it. It is a cliche, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. I don't know if she'll make it to the end of the book, but she's still there.

HANK: But this is Blink, isn't it? Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating book that posits (in part) that we all make snap decisions based on exactly the things Jan's bringing up. How our experience with how someone looks, or dresses, or their gestures, or attitude--causes us to make a decision, in the blink of an eye, about who they are and what they'll do. If that's true, and it feels like it is, how can we separate that from the choices we make in creating characters? Maybe we're not really "deciding"--the character is real, they're going to do what they're going to do. It's already all in there.

There's also that recent study that says more attractive people are more successful. More people who are bosses are taller. And certainly many TV reporters have put on a "fat suit" to show how people who are overweight are treated as invisible. And have you taken that online test that'll prove--whether you believe it or not--that you're ageist?

(And Ro, you are not average.)

JAN: Now that you mention it, Hank, maybe that's why I loved Blink so much. I guess all of humanity comes up with some kind of short-hand analysis. For good and ill. Some of it is cliche. Some of it is a real stretch. But I'd like to hear about it from all of you out there, because I think it tells us something about ourselves. Maybe something really deep. Or maybe just where our mothers bought our clothes.


  1. I also think early risers are somewhat fundamentally better people (because of course, I'm not one). I've sported a lot of different looks over the years, and I know, without a doubt that I'm treated differently depending on whether I'm blonde, brunette or redhead, whether my hair is long or short, whether I'm wearing glasses or not, whether I'm skinny and in great shape or carrying a few extra pounds, and depending on what I'm wearing. I think some of how we're treated is tied to how we're projecting ourselves without even knowing it. Some of it is the way the world judges us. Full disclosure -- I had some (ahem) cosmetic enhancements done a number of years ago and the first time I went to Blockbuster with some movies to return (post enhancement), the clerk told me not to worry about the late fees. NEVER in all of my years as a AA cup had any such thing ever happened -- I wanted to hit him in the face with the movies. People treated me differently. Now I'm getting older and that brings its own changes in how a stranger reacts (or doesn't).

    I find quirks to be endearing. I don't think I make any assumptions about intelligence based on anything observable, but I probably do base some judgments on a person's values, politics and priorities based on the things they wear/own/buy and wear they live.

    I agree with Hallie that the character traits and quirks that we create in our own fiction are informed entirely by our own experiences and ideas. I like a quirky, imperfect person, so I suppose I tend to make all of my likable characters quirky and imperfect. I don't write conventional bad guys, but I suppose if I did, they'd be ueber-neat perfectionists.

    And Republicans :)

  2. Isn't it a reality that we all make snap judgments about people based on the flimsiest of data? It's not admirable, and we may be dead wrong, but it's human. It's probably in our genes: if in the distant past we guessed wrong about a stranger or an unfamiliar animal, we would have ended up dead. And stereotypes, right or wrong, are something a large group of people will recognize.

    My daughter is a night owl. Given her choice, she will sleep all day and stay up all night. I'm a morning person. I wonder how different her world looks to her?

  3. It's so true, we all make snap judgments, but I guess the ones I find the most interesting are the ones that are inverse to our own traits. Early risers must be superior because I am not one of them. The same goes for really, really neat people, those with mechanical skill, and/or science/math smarts. I'm moderate in everything,(how intensely boring) so I am fascinated by compulsive people. How weird is that?

  4. I can't walk down the street or sit in a restaurant without making snap judgements about people. It used to be a game, now I call it research. ("ok, he must be really loaded, otherwise why would SHE be with him...") Not particularly nice, but kinda fun. Of course, once you get to know someone, they may be totally different, but when they're strangers, I consider them fair game, like drivers who cut you off,...and liable to wind up in a book..
    And are so DESERVE the Loro Piano shawl.


    Meet Gail and Cheryl, both bubbly blonde women of a certain age. Gail still wears her hair long, works on her tan and drives a red convertible. When she's animated, she squeals and giggles. Having a party? She's there. Cheryl has wide blue eyes, a lush pink mouth and a white smile that stretches from here to forever. She speaks in a slow, rich drawl that oozes butter and honey. They are the head cheerleader and the homecoming queen.

    Actually, they're not. Gail is a volunteer Victim's Advocate working with at least three police departments in domestic abuse cases. Cheryl is a brilliant biochemical researcher. These two women are real and would make fascinating characters, too.

    Does anyone else find that the stereotype and the anti-stereotype can be equally annoying? The rumpled male cop with the bassett-hound face and doughnut gut v. the young female cop with the fashion-model figure and the take-no-prisoners attitude. (Over the years, I've found it interesting to see the variety of people cast as judges in Law & Order episodes. Very few would have cut it on Perry Mason!)

    I think the most important thing for a writer is to use the human tendency to snap judgements as a way of fooling the reader. Agatha Christie was so good at this, from Miss Marple to her range of unexpected murderers: ingenues, heros, children, invalids, etc.

    I'm at the stage in life when handsome young men smile at me because I remind them of their mothers. I'm the woman parents tell their children to go to if they get lost in the mall. Nobody's afraid to ask me for the time or directions. Otherwise, I'm virtually invisible. I'd make a great murderer.

  6. I agree, playing against stereotype can be really effective. At the very least, we really have to go beyond the stereotype. But what I really want to know is why can British TV shows cast normal-looking people for normal roles, and on American TV, every single woman has to be plastic-surgery attractive?

  7. Just the other day when we were having pie, I thought...what a good murderer she'd make...