Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thin slicing our characters

by Bill Kirton

Your first glimpse conditions
your opinion of her...
I’ve just read an article about ‘thin-slicing’. Apparently that’s what we do nearly all the time. We base our judgements and decisions on split second observations of thin slices of behaviour. And, surprisingly perhaps, we’re usually right. The easy examples are of sportspeople behaving almost instinctively as they pass the ball, shoot for the hoop or whatever. But the most interesting for writers is that we apparently form an impression of people we meet within the first few seconds and then just notice things which confirm that impression.

So the laborious presentations that people have prepared for situations such as interviews or wanting to impress the future in-laws seem to be a waste of time. The first handshake, eye contact, hairstyle choice, colour of jacket or God knows what else has already made up the mind of the person you’re meeting.

I wonder whether we also ‘thin-slice’ the characters we ‘meet’ in books. Is the initial impression so crucial? Or does the leisurely process of an unfolding narrative change the nature of our perceptions? We don’t, after all, have the direct, instinctive signals of body language to help us and anyway we know we’re collaborating in a fiction. Then again, if we’re assessing a real person in the real world, then just looking for evidence to prove we’re right, aren’t we just moulding reality to our own ongoing fiction?

And, from the writer’s point of view, does it
... then she starts on the vodka.
mean that we should make sure that the way we choose to introduce a character puts his/her essence right up front and leaves little room for misinterpretation? If that’s the case, it seems to me that the best way to achieve it is through letting the character speak for him/herself. The moment we start describing their hair, eyes, clothes, bulk, etc. we’re offering archetypes. However much we then refine them to the specifics of that individual, the risk is that the reader’s already decided that he’s seeing a fat slob or a peacock. Let them speak for themselves, condemn or ingratiate themselves out of their own mouths.

Whatever the truth of it all, it just adds to the fascinating complexity of the reading (and writing) experience.


Jackie King said...

This is a profound post. While reading a book, I always see the character in my mind. Let's say I'm seeing the hero as having dark hair and blue eyes. If in chapter two I learn that he's blond, then the book loses a lot of reality for me; regardless of how well it is written. This is the reason I don't give much space to physical description. The reader can provide that for her/himself.

Loved this article.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Jackie. I'm the same with regard to describing my characters' appearance. A quote I like to repeat is from Stendhal who said something like 'I don't know the colour of my hero's eyes because I'm looking through them, not at them.'