Thursday, February 28, 2008

Play Nice

Maven Lacey KayeLooks like the unofficial theme this week is bringing personal experience into our writing. I figure that means it's time to dust off the half-written post that's been up in my drafts folder since late last year and actually, uh, post it.

A defining moment in every woman's life is the day she realizes she looks and/or sounds like her mother. For me, that point of no return occurred when I got my Washington Driver's License. I took a good look at the tiny picture printed there beside my name, swallowed, double-checked the image (just in case), and put it into my wallet.

I vowed never to show it to anyone ever again.

A few years went by and I started to think maybe I had been wrong about the picture. Besides, the more years that passed by, the more I wanted someone to ask me for my license. (Another defining moment in a woman's life?) Then I got the brilliant idea to take my personal photographs to work and put them up as flare in my office. One day a picture of my mother at about 17 or 18 years old went up on my shelf at work. Next to it, and without first realizing the implication, I placed a picture of me at 19 or 20 sitting next to my mother at the kitchen table.

I uttered some very non-PC things, realizing there actually existed inarguable, side-by-side proof I am the spitting image of my mother...and that I probably have been a lot longer than I've wanted to accept it (or even noticed it). Not surprisingly, the people at work picked up on it really fast. At least three times a week I'm asked whether it's me or my mom in the black and white high school photo. I've come to accept it's not a bad thing to look like one's mother when one's coworkers stand and gaze at her photo appreciatively (usually citing that it takes them back to their own high school days...but I say, Go, Mom!). But I grew up hearing I looked like my father and my grandmother on my father's side, so when did I become my mother?

None of that is particularly related to writing, in case you were waiting for the aha moment. But something closely related to the looking like one's mother is the sounding like one's mother, and that IS a subject I can relate to writing.

I hear my mother speak far more often than I'm comfortable with! I feel it in certain non-verbal language I convey with facial expressions and recognize it in my patterns of speech. (Not always a bad thing -- my mother is a very funny person.) But if I could have just one of my mother's characteristics, it would be to carry on her rock-solid determination to treat all people the same no matter what other people think or say about them. In other words, there is nothing cool about being mean to people just because you can be.

In the last year or so, I've come to realize how often people look to each other to decipher the behavior expected of them in certain situations. When you meet at least one new person a day, it becomes second nature to watch for the verbal and non-verbal cues people give off about each other. It's a quick way to avoid most social gaffes...or at least, most perceived social gaffes. See a man walk into a room and everyone sits a little taller? Without asking, you get the idea he's a person of some authority. Or take my initial introduction to my dentist:

A new dental hygienist worked on my teeth for half an hour, (un)intentionally building trust with me. When the dentist came in, she treated him like an imbecile. She clearly had no respect for him or his ability to practice dentistry. She called him "Doctor" like it was a dirty word. As in, "Doctor, you forgot to get your pick behind you." "Doctor, you just knocked the hose to the floor." I decided then and there my dentist was retarded, instead of assuming my hygienist was a bitch.

...Which I finally figured out the day my regular dentist wasn't there and she had to work with someone else. Apparently, she's the smartest hygienist in the world and all the doctors at her office are morons.

Maven Erica is the one who made me realize how important it is to show the reader how other characters react to your character/situations so the reader knows how to feel about said situations.

Example: My hero is a snarky bastard, but he's not supposed to be unlovable. I routinely would write situations where he would tease his friends but not show the reactions of the people being snarked on. This was an important oversight. I needed to show reader that no one ever took him seriously enough to be offended. The result: People would read through a scene and come away wondering why he had any friends at all. With a few simple subcharacter reactions (or lead-ins), I can point the reader in the direction they need to look.

Another example: How many times have you ever read about the extremely youthful, virginal heroine with child-like beauty and been totally squicked out when the hero can't wait to bed her? But I read The Spymaster's Lady and never once shivered at the description. (Ok, I did once, but it's a perfect example of this subject in action: I had to reread when a man came to the door and said Galba's niece was a pretty child. I actually stopped reading to flip around and make sure no one else had stepped onto the scene, because I was that unused to thinking of Annique as a very youthful-looking girl-child.)

What are your characters saying about each other? What vibes are you giving to your peers or children when you see that annoying coworker or relative? Have you ever noticed how often people look to you to decide how they should treat other people (or react in various unpleasant situations)?

Recently, someone asked me to explain my job. I said, "More important than any one thing we put on paper (and don't get me wrong; we put a LOT of stuff on paper), my team is employed to bring order to the madness."

I surprised myself with that answer, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When something goes wrong, management is notified. Management then calls us in, briefs us, and sits back while we coordinate the various orgs to put together a plan that everyone can work with. Now, the various orgs are all schooled up in their Excel and PowerPoint. They could easily create their own solutions without bothering my people. The information we use to create those solutions almost always comes directly out of their heads, after all, so we're not there to tell anyone what they need to do to get their job done. We are there to force everyone to stop panicking and breathe. Because we are one step removed from the problem, we often have less at stake. The ability to project calm and order over an excited room is worth a lot of money these days, at least where I work.

What I'm saying is, it's human nature to look to others to determine how one should react...or maybe it's pack instinct and we're all barely better-mannered than wolves.

Either way, be nice to each other out there. People are watching :-)

Last week's example flurry worked really well, I thought. What are some examples of skewing perception in your life or in your manuscript?


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with showing other characters' reactions. Without them half the scene is missing and it often portrays the exact opposite of what you wanted.

Which leads to one of the reasons I have a hard time sticking to one POV and not head hopping as they call it. I LIKE knowing what everyone's doing and thinking. It's more fun that way. :)

Marnee Jo said...

Hi guys! Sorry I haven't been around in a while.

At any rate, I think other characters are vital to understanding the hero or heroine. In fact, sometimes if I have a really important plot element happening to a character, I'll write in the other POV just so I can describe the affected character's expressions.

Oh, and I'm more like my mom every day too, especially when I talk. Sometimes I'll say something and look behind me, just to make sure she's not standing there. :)

Tessa Dare said...

LOL about the dentist, Lacey!

I love your topic - very thought provoking. I think this was a huge challenge for me in my last book, because my heroine was keeping to herself and traveling incognito for most of the book, and it was impossible to show her interacting with people who actually knew her. Drove me nuts. But then, I guess it was also sort of key to letting the hero see her in a way no one else had before...

Regardless, I'm looking forward to having a bit more room to stretch in the book I'm just starting. Thanks for the reminder of all the possibilities open to me now!

Erica Ridley said...

I once wrote a heroine whom nobody respected and for whom all her peers thought her achievements were silly and her goals were ridiculous. Oddly enough (duh) the reader did, too. After some Maven suggestion to at the very least get the heroine's parents in her corner, the interpretation underwent a 180. Even though my heroine was doing the exact same things as before, having people believe her to be smart, savvy, and capable re-colored her goals in a new (and better) light.

lacey kaye said...

Christine, I have to say, back before I was a writer I never noticed head-hopping. And while I wouldn't recommend something just because big names do it, I also wouldn't discount the fact that plenty of fabulous stories do contain head-hopping.

Just saying!

Marnee, nice to see you around!

I think it's easy to not even realize how much we rely on the other characters to understand what our h/h are doing. See Maven Erica's example. I was reading that going, "So true! I remember that!"

And there is apparently this "face" in my family that is heriditary. *screams*

You're staring a new book, Tessa?!? I'm so jealous of your pace. I will be watching very carefully now to see how you do with this new, unmarked horizon...

E, as I said above, Brilliance!

Jackie Barbosa said...

Curse you, Maven Lacey! (And the other Mavens, too.) Just about the time I think I've got a handle on the important elements of craft, one of you comes along and points another one out to me that I hadn't thought much about.

Of course, what you're saying makes perfect sense and now I'll be plagued by the worry that I'm not doing enough of it. Sigh!

And as for the mother thing--I don't look like my mom at all, but I sure do SOUND like her. But I always have. Since I was in my teens, people would regularly mistake me for her on the telephone. And a long time friend of hers once told me if he closed his eyes and listened to me talk, he'd think it was Katie. So, you know, I've pretty much ALWAYS lived with that whole "I'm becoming my mother" thing :).

Darcy Burke said...

This post is so timely because just yesterday I was writing a scene where the hero was literally thinking, "How is the heroine going to react?" and it was (be necessity) going to determine what he did next. But it's so important to think of this nuance even when it isn't obvious. You're absolutely right that it's human nature to see what the masses are doing. Great, great post.

The older I get the more I look like my mother. And Mom looks at herself now and sees Gramma. (I admitted to her recently that I see her too. Sigh.)

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