Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What does your stuff say about you?

Sandra Parshall

The cover art for the October issue of Psychology Today is arresting – a huge sandwich filled with books and DVDs – but the lines above the magazine’s name were what caught my eye:


I already know myself all too well and don’t need a magazine article to explain what my “stuff” says about me. But I thought the piece might spark some new ideas for fleshing out characters, creating fictional people who would be intriguing, unpredictable, so I forked over $4.99 plus tax (when did magazines become so expensive?) and brought home a copy of PT to peruse.

What I learned was that humans are disappointingly easy to sort into stereotypes. Eriq Gardner’s report on research into the mystery of human “taste” verified some obvious assumptions: extroverts enjoy art/music/films with sensational elements, forceful action, and themes of sexuality or violence; introverts are drawn to quieter, more contemplative works of art and books and films heavy on character development. When we want people to know what we’re like, we tell them about our preferences in entertainment, and feel reasonably sure they’ll get the right idea.

Some tastes may be programmed into us before we ever open our eyes to the world. For example, a study of 3,000 twins determined that a love of jazz is at least partly inherited. There’s no jazz gene, Gardner is quick to point out, but people do inherit personality traits and aspects of intelligence that influence their preferences.

Does this mean we’re enslaved by brain chemistry and inborn traits? We all make snap judgments of people based on the outward evidence of their taste in clothes, food, art, music – but are those judgments invariably accurate? Will the devotee of classical music always be quiet and thoughtful? Will the person who loves country always be down to earth, unpretentious? Don’t we all know people who contradict the stereotypes? Of course we do, because most of us have overlapping personality traits that tug us in different directions and make us love a rock concert one day and seek quiet solitude the next.

So where does this leave the writer whose editor and readers demand consistent behavior from characters?

Writers can tap into the reader’s unconscious assumptions about people in some useful ways. The car the character drives, or the clothes he chooses for casual Friday at the office, will create an instant impression, saving the writer paragraphs or pages of character delineation. A mystery writer can also use the tendency toward quick judgments to throw the reader off the villain’s scent. The character who looks and acts too innocent to be anything but guilty has become a cliche, but authors can still use variations of this technique, creating emotional or cultural disguises for their killers. Because it’s difficult for anyone to hide his true nature for long, the real person will show through in a habit, preference, or possession that doesn’t fit with the rest of the disguise and opens a window to the truth.

Agatha Christie wrote villains and heros alike in their simplest form. Scratch the surface and you won’t find much underneath. Today, if characters aren’t complex and intriguing, they’re dismissed as cardboard cutouts that can’t carry a story. Readers want to be surprised – but not too much. The story may focus on crime-solving, but the writer has to be an attentive student of human psychology to succeed.

As a reader, do you value consistency over surprise? How do you react when a fictional person does something “out of character”? Does it make the character seem more real or less real to you?

Now let’s get personal: What does your “stuff” – the music you listen to, the books you read, the colors you’ve chosen to decorate your home – say about you? If you were telling a new acquaintance about yourself and wanted to make a great impression, what would you reveal about your tastes and what would you leave out?


Darlene Ryan said...

Looking at my stuff would probably suggest to people that I'm a writer--or a very strange person. My reading pile at the moment has a cookbook, a book on suicide, a book about autopsies, one on DID, one about werewolves, a romance, two mysteries and book about building log houses.

Susan D said...

This is an interesting concept, and there's lots of food for thought.

One thing I'd want to keep in mind is whether my readers have the same world view as I do. Cars are perhaps a simple example. If a male character drives an 8-year-old Civic, some readers might automatically think, "Loser. Can't afford a newer, better, sexier car." Others, like me, would think, "Smart guy. And secure enough in his own self-image not to waste money on some gas-guzzling babe magnet."

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm in the midst of a reunion (prolonged by the Internet) with junior high school classmates of more than 50 years ago who remember me as "smart" and "good." I'm enjoying telling them I'm no longer such an intellectual--and cite my love of mysteries and country music. And if that's not enough, I put on my "Outrageous Older Woman" T-shirt.

Lonnie Cruse said...

If I suspect people have me pigeon holed (she'd never do this or that) I love nothing better than popping out of that hole and surprising them . . . unless it's truly something I'd never do. Like rob a bank. Too easy to get caught.

What does my stuff say? Probably older woman, loves tea, loves baskets, loves crafts, and if you look closely loves studying yucky forensics, loves bumping people off . . . in fiction, of course.

Paul Lamb said...

Gosh, I didn't know Psychology Today was even published any more.