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I did quite a bit of driving around town today, and at one point I was on the highway behind a guy on a motorcycle.  He had what appeared to be a wolf tail attached to his back fender.  This led to three thoughts:
  1. I saw a bunch of people wearing similar tails at DragonCon. What's with the wolf tails? Is it a Twilight thing?  
  2. What exactly is this guy trying to convey by attaching a wolf tail to the back of his motorcycle?  Because I'd bet quite a bit of money that the message he's trying to send ain't the one I'm getting. 
  3. What's up with those people who attach big metal balls to the back undercarriage of their trucks?  Because that's messed up too.  (I did a little Googling. They have all kinds of not-so-clever names, and they've been banned in some states. Unfortunately, Ohio is apparently not one of those states.  If you haven't seen them and you really want to put yourself through it, you can see some pictures here and here. No more explicit than what you're probably imagining, but maybe not so good to click at work or around small children who might ask awkward questions.)
Keeping questions 1 and 3 in mind, let's focus on Question 2 and relate it back to writing. 

Everybody does something called impression management.  Impression management is the process by which we try to control what impressions other people form of us.  People who are high self-monitorers are more likely to monitor how they're being perceived and adjust their behavior to make the impression they want to make.  They see themselves as flexible and good with other people.  Low self-monitorers pay less attention to how they're affecting others and just say what they have to say.  They see themselves as pragmatic and less easily swayed by others. (If you want to take the self-monitoring scale and see where you fall, you can do that here. Let me know how you come out in the comments!)

Both high and low self-monitorers use impression management, they just use it differently based on how they want to be perceived.  One wants to be perceived in whatever way is most favorable in that particular situation; the other wants to be seen as independent and unswayed by others.

Start paying attention to the way people around you manage impressions.  Because the guy with the tail on his motorcycle, he was trying to give a particular impression.  I sincerely doubt it was Team Jacob, but that did come to mind.  Maybe he was going for something cool and independent like lone wolf?  If he was, it backfired, because I just thought seriously, what's up with that? and then started thinking about other weird things that make me wonder the same thing (hence, the truck balls).

Honestly, if I'd seen him in a parking lot, I'd have gone up and asked him what was up with the wolf tail, just to find out what he really was thinking.

What impressions do your characters want to give other people?  Do they want to seem competent?  Cool?  Friendly?  Sexy? Something else?

How do they try to convey that? (For that matter, how do you try to convey that in the story?)

How might it backfire?

I'll be interested to read your thoughts in the comments!

Strong Female Protagonists

I went to DragonCon over Labor Day weekend.  It was pure chaos, spread out across four massive hotels with nary a sign in sight to direct you most of the time.  DragonCon has panel tracks, and there was a writing track, so I trekked my way up the hill to the Hyatt and then down into the bowels of the place in search of a panel called Strong Female Protagonists.  Ah, I thought.  Someone was going to talk about the Anti-Bella.  Yay feminism!

Not so much.

Some of the authors on the panel talked about how their female protagonists aren't really strong -- they're just so incredibly vulnerable that they have no choice but to buck up a little bit to survive.  Others talked about how their heroines' strength was born out of how much said heroines hate themselves. (Which is, sadly, a cliche of the urban fantasy genre.) It felt like half of them were apologizing for female characters who were seen as strong.

And then the whole thing devolved into a discussion of how explicit your sex scenes should be. 

You know what I learned from the panel?  How incredibly uncomfortable our society still is with strong, independent women.  So uncomfortable, in fact, that people retreated into a discussion about the most primitive way for men and women to relate: sex. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good conversation about sex as much as the next person, but not when it's a way to avoid the elephant we really came to discuss.

In fact, the only truly useful part of the panel was when one author mentioned that the role of Lt. Ripley, the heroine of the Aliens movies, was originally written for a man.  When Sigourney Weaver was cast instead, nobody bothered to rewrite the script. What we got was one of cinema's most unapologetically powerful women.

My favorite strong female character is probably Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow from TV's Alias series.  I was so impressed with Sydney's toughness and independence because it was balanced with heart and intelligence.  Sydney was competent and confident, and nobody questioned that.  If she and her partner Michael Vaughn got in a tight situation, you know who fought their way out?  Well, they worked together, but Syd just happened to be the better fighter.  Sydney did dress up and emphasize her sex appeal from time to time, but it was a tool in her arsenal, her way of taking advantage of stereotypes, and just one of the many approaches she was capable of using.

Who are your favorite strong female protagonists?  Why do you like them?

Using Double Binds to Raise Tension

Following my post on the double bind theory originally developed to explain why people develop schizophrenia, a couple of people asked me to write more about double binds.

I said:

Double-bind theory is Gregory Bateman's 1950's-era proposition that what causes schizophrenia is repeated no-win dilemmas in the child's family life. In other words, the child was repeatedly confronted with statements that contained two contradictory statements (i.e. a double bind). Because of the child's attachment to the caregiver, he was eager to do as the caregiver asked -- the problem was that by meeting one demand, he would be defying the other.
So what are some examples of double binds, people asked? Not necessarily with regards to schizophrenia, but in general?

First, it's important to understand that most human communication doesn't involve words. In fact, only 7% of communication is attributable to the words' explicit meaning.  Fifty-five percent of communication is body language, and the remaining 38% is vocal inflection and tone.  So a double bind may or may not involve two explicit contradictory statements.  The contradiction may be between body language and words, or between tone and words.

Sometimes double binds are called "no-win situations," though double binds are often psychologically more complex than the average no-win situation.

The double bind happens like this:

  1. The individual is given one command, with an explicit or implied "or else."  The individual needs the relationship with the person giving the command, and therefore feels obligated to obey.
  2. The individual is given a contradictory command verbally or nonverbally.
  3. Sometimes other rules are imposed to keep the person from escaping the double bind.  Usually there is something keeping the person from remarking on the paradox, either because she doesn't truly understand the paradox, or because the situation prohibits her from commenting on the paradox to help her resolve it.

For example, imagine a character who has a temper and withdraws love when something upsets him.  Now imagine that this character insists that he will leave his partner (or otherwise stop loving her) if she doesn't provide him with negative feedback he knows she holds.  Suddenly she's trapped in a double bind.  If she doesn't give him the negative feedback, he will withdraw love.  If she does give him the negative feedback, he will withdraw love.  If she tells him that he's providing her with an unfair situation, he will withdraw love.  Several of these messages are nonverbal, but they're there.

Here are a couple websites that address double binds that you may find helpful.  Both give examples.

As I'm writing, I keep thinking about the movie Saw.  The villain, Jigsaw, confronts people with double binds; I think that's part of what makes the first movie so intriguing psychologically.  He provides each victim with  something horrific that he can stop only by doing something just as horrific.

For example, in the first movie two men wake up, chained across a filthy washroom from each other.  One victim, Dr. Gordon (remember, doctors are taught to "do no harm," and this value is important to Gordon) must kill the other man; otherwise, his family will be killed.  But that's not the real double bind.  The double bind is that there's another alternative -- Dr. Gordon can also saw off his own leg to get away and go try to save his family himself.  There is nothing unethical about sawing off your own leg, and you can even hope that Dr. Gordon will know enough about the human body to tie an effective tourniquet.  But both alternatives are so abhorrent psychologically that Gordon (and the watcher) are paralyzed.

Creating truly paralyzing psychological double binds for your characters will raise tension and make the story intriguing.  Here's how to do it:

  1. You must establish your hero's values so we see there is really no out to his situation.
  2. You must raise the stakes high enough that each alternative is truly perilous for your hero.
  3. You must demonstrate in some way that the villain will truly follow through with her threats if the hero does not choose one of the (psychologically unacceptable) alternatives.
  4. You must not be afraid to go there psychologically yourself.  (This is what holds a lot of people back from a truly great double bind in their fiction, so really think about this one.)
  5. You can't remain paralyzed by the situation.  Once you paint your character into a truly awful corner, you have to force him to make a decision.  Part of what makes Saw so shocking is that Gordon does make a decision, and it really is awful.
  6. You need to acknowledge the fallout of that decision.  If the alternatives are truly awful, there's going to be fallout of some kind, and that should be awful too.

It scares a lot of people to really Go There; that is, to really go through all six of the above steps. It scares them because they have to own up to the fact that they imagined something really awful and inflicted it on their characters.  It scares them because they don't want to sully their shining hero with a truly awful decision.  It scares them because they don't want to have to make a truly awful choice, and they must if the story is to continue.

It's okay to be scared.  Write with the fear, share it with your characters, and see where that takes you.

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