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.