WRITING: Find character tags where you can

Surprise: a post somewhat about fiction writing (and interpersonal dynamics)!

But first, our little anecdote-with-teaching-value.

On one of the two beloved FidoNet-heritage mailing lists I’m on, we’re having a mini-brouhaha over someone who does a LOT of forwarding. You know the drill . . . various jokes, shaggy-dog stories, links to funny videos, and personality tests come to the list and occasionally are appreciated by the list members. Here, the person who most often forwards things is our adored moderator/listowner, so if I don’t wanna read something, I skip it and save it for later. But the other day another member questioned the usefulness of a toy personality test that had been sent (“Which Greek Goddess Are You?”), in a general way; I thought her response was useful because she told WHY she didn’t like those tests in general: she said that employers and teachers use them to evaluate you as a person, and very often her BEST answer to every question would be, “None of the above.”

The test begins, “This is a real test given by the Human Relations Dept. at many of the major corporations today. It helps them get better insight concerning their employees and prospective employees.” Its ten questions are typical of those you see in every magazine and all over the ‘net.

When talking to people, you…
A) stand with your arms folded
B) have your hands clasped
C) have one or both your hands on your hips
D) touch or push the person to whom you are talking
E) play with your ear, touch your chin, or smooth your hair
F) mess with whatever’s around–tear the leaves off plants, pick lint off of the person talking, etc.

When relaxing, you sit with…
A) your knees bent with your legs neatly side by side
B-1) your legs crossed at the knee
B-2) your legs crossed at the ankle
C) your legs stretched out or straight
D) one leg curled under you
E) your feet propped up on the other person’s desk, with cow patties rubbing off onto their stack of TPS reports

Et cetera. These typical questions have no permanent answers, as any one person could do any, all, or none of these things “most of the time.” But these questions seem to the testers to have value, so that’s what they ask.

Now, I tend to agree with the respondent to an extent. I never fit into any of the tests’ categories. As a Bohemian Nonconformist Intellectual and an IN*xP* (MBTI type), I don’t fit into the categories that corporations generally set up. What I do when I must fit in for a time (to fool them; bwa-ha-ha) is use acting skills to form myself into a pseudopod that fits the mold; of course, that starts to chafe quickly (as the moderator of the list said). Anyone gets tired of the effort required to play a role, and soon he or she begins to question whether it’s worth it–and possibly has a meltdown or a scream-out. Our list moderator noted that we all want to be appreciated for our true selves. We can’t “be phonies” for very long without turning into One Of Them.

The moderator of that list also wrote, “In a world that likes uniform quick fits, it sucks to be the odd-shaped puzzle piece.” It’s even worse when you LIKE being the odd piece and don’t WANT to fit in . . . you can guess which of us I’m talking about.

This was a cool discussion, and I didn’t read the response from the member who objected as snitty; I sensed that she despairs of the way that we are tested by employers and teachers and everyone else and then we’re supposed to fit into This Slot and thus we work well with These Types and all the rest.

But to the moderator this reply seemed to impugn her very motives in sending “that kind of dreck” to the list, and she got upset. The other member offered to leave the list. I hope she doesn’t. I hope this doesn’t tear a hole in the list.

**BUT ANYWAY.** What Can We Learn? I actually didn’t take the test as intended, but I found it useful. I copied out a bunch of the responses (crossing legs, crossing arms, etc.) and pasted them into a file called “emotional reactions” to be used when I’m writing a novel and get stuck on “he grinned” and “she sighed” and other too-overused bits of action. I find myself having a character be a grinning fool–ack! This list of actions will be VERY useful when I’m doing a first draft and need to plug in something that keeps me aware of the “scenery” and away from “talking heads.” Sometimes I just sit in front of the screen thinking, “I need an action tag or a twitch in reaction,” but I can’t think of what it could be. This will help–even if I go back and change it later.

That’s a big problem sometimes–you’ll be on a roll (melting!!) and you forget to talk about the environment the characters are in. It’s good to remind readers where we all are and what it smells like and that you have to shout over the music or that it’s quiet save for the faraway noise of the freeway a couple of miles to the east. That way, readers keep that mental imaging going.

Of course, I have OVERDONE that in the past, when I was trying to “put readers in the scene,” as one agent had recommended. She hadn’t felt that I put my readers into the carnival . . . the airport in turmoil . . . the stinky back forty with cowpats all over. So I *overdid* it. But that was also a learning experience, as beta readers came back to say that their mental pictures were being disrupted by being told EVERY twitch and scent. I had to let the book rest and then go scale back. Still, these kinds of character habits are great tags and DO give readers a feel for what that character is like.

You can have Sam be twitchy and always cross her legs at the knees and jiggle her foot, gripping her knee with both hands, her red-enameled nails sticking out like thorns . . . and let readers conjecture for themselves whether she’s nervous or just impatient, a type A person or someone who just wants the other guy to “get it over with” so she can leap up and rush out and go do what SHE wants to do. So which is it?

There’s the difficulty in USING these tics . . . different readers interpret them differently. Your dad’s eyelid twitched when he was angry, but he didn’t pick up things and throw them. Someone else’s dad had an eyelid twitch when he was about to have a seizure, and it was a warning. So even WITH these little clues, we have different readers putting on different interpretations.

But nobody said writing was gonna be easy!

Same for getting along with people, even old friends. I suspect there’s something roiling under the surface with both parties involved in the list blowout. I hope we can work things out so the list doesn’t get destroyed.

However, all good things must come to an end, I suppose. Speaking of that, we can only hope that LiveJournal hangs on. As for me and my house, I’m staying until the end of LJ, if it comes.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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