Monday, September 12, 2011

A character's behavior reveals underlying power assumptions

This is a post about character. It's also a post about the importance of establishing manners and culture in your stories. But it starts with the story of my children crossing the street to school.

The school has two or three different crossing guards. After a few days, while we were walking home, my kids asked me, "Why does the man make us wait for cars?"

It's true. When we arrive with a group of people at the crosswalk, the male crossing guard looks at the street, watches cars go by for a while, then raises his stop sign and walks out into the street. The female crossing guard turns to the street and raises her sign, then walks out into the street.

Both methods work. The man's method makes the pedestrians wait. And as I explained to my children, each one is based on a different set of assumptions. The female crossing guard feels that her pedestrians are more important than the traffic. The male crossing guard feels that the traffic is more important than his pedestrians. When the female crossing guard sees pedestrians arrive, she raises her sign to command the traffic to stop. When the male crossing guard sees pedestrians arrive, he raises his sign to ask permission from the traffic for the pedestrians to cross.

One of them commands, and the other asks permission - and this is played out in their behavior.

Another situation arose over the weekend where I was communicating about a French class I'm helping to arrange. I'm a co-coordinator with another fantastic woman. She has been with this program for the last year. I have not. I found that each time I wanted to communicate with officers of the French program further up the line, I felt the strong desire to talk to my co-coordinator first. Eventually, since I couldn't reach her, I had to communicate directly. What made me hesitate in this situation was that I have certain expectations: 1. about the authority of experience, 2. about chain of command in organizations, and 3. about what to do in situations of urgency. You can easily imagine that if one were to change any one of those three, the results might be very different.

My husband was put in a very interesting situation of this nature when he worked in Japan. He was in the midst of a set of organizational assumptions about authority, experience, chain of command, and dealing with urgency, that differed from what he was used to. This sometimes had distinctly different (occasionally unfortunate) results, and it's not hard to see that Americans and Japanese dealing with matters of this nature would experience friction due to different sets of underlying assumptions.

This is why, when I write other worlds or different kinds of people, I like to track underlying assumptions. I also like to be very careful about how people interact in small social situations - and I encourage you to do the same. My situation from the last post, about how my character would walk out a vehicle into a field of grass, is related to this directly. I hadn't been thinking about it when I first wrote it, but the behavior reveals her underlying assumptions, and those assumptions have to align with the social group she's a part of, and the situation as a whole.

It happens here in our world too, so keep your eye out. That could become quite a resource for subtlety and nuance in your writing.

11 comments:

  1. Great post and something to think about. Thanks,

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  2. This really made me think--great post! :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  3. Thanks, E. Arroyo!

    Angela, I really appreciate it!

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  4. "as I explained to my children, each one is based on a different set of assumptions. The female crossing guard feels that her pedestrians are more important than the traffic. The male crossing guard feels that the traffic is more important than his pedestrians. When the female crossing guard sees pedestrians arrive, she raises her sign to command the traffic to stop. When the male crossing guard sees pedestrians arrive, he raises his sign to ask permission from the traffic for the pedestrians to cross."

    Or you know, he's lazy. Or he likes to think of himself as efficient and waits for the gaps in the traffic. Or he just doesn't like you because of some previous unnoticed slight from you. Or he waits to collect larger groups of people so to break traffic less. Or she doesn't like you and wants to get rid of you. Or she's lazy and wants to get it over and done with. Or she's bored with the lack of challenge and likes to see how quickly she can get the traffic to stop.

    What makes you think that it's a case of commanding/asking permission out of all the other infinite possibilities and why do you think you can read minds?

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  5. Sarah, thanks for bringing up some of the other possibilities (while they are not infinite, you're correct that there can be more than one interpretation). Whenever we are asked about another person's motives, we use the evidence that we have available from observing them to draw conclusions (facial expression, eye gaze, posture, etc). The point I'm making here is actually not about trying to figure out crossing guards, but that readers do the same things with our characters (especially non point-of-view characters) when they read. So any evidence you give of a character's motives, including slight changes of behavior, can reflect their underlying views of the world. In an alternate world setting, it's worth thinking through minor interactions as well as major ones to allow them to fit with the unusual views characteristic of that world.

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  6. Great post! Has me thinking about my characters already. Thanks!

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  7. Sorry for the drive-by. Thanks for the reply. I was distracted from your point by the mind-reading, but that's on me more than you, I'm just getting annoyed by all the analysis you see on the web which relies on analysing or dictating to people what their motivations are, what they're thinking and why they're thinking it. The rest of the post was very useful and informative, thanks.

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  8. No problem, Sarah. I think you made a good point, and it is indeed something I see on the web quite a lot. We all end up guessing someone else's motivations in one context or another, but it's important to remember we're not infallible. Thanks for stopping by again.

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