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Do Your Characters Send the Messages They Intend To?

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!


  1. Scott said...
    Great Post. I did a post about character dynamics recently - more to the point, why are 3 people friends. Why? At the stoplight, Starbucks to my right, and three men sitting at the outdoor table drinking coffee. The men just didn't seem to fit together, and yet I pretty much figured out their dynamics - i.e., who was the leader, who the follower, and who just seemed grateful to be included in the group. Yeah, I'm probably totally wrong . . . but those were my initial impressions.

    I recently revamped a character because I realized he wasn't sending the message I wanted him to send. Wait, I revamped 2 characters.

    As for your questions . . . well, I truly never thought about whether they were trying to convey themselves as friendly, sexy, oversexed, undersexed, confident, competent, or anything. I think, taking sexy as the lead, I would describe the characters clothes, his/her attitude, flipping of hair, glance into a mirror, or other obvious things that might possibly reveal insecurities as well. Even the most confident person, the person a person thinks is confident, sometimes shows a bit of insecurity as well.

    An example, this man my friends and I see when we go out - always had a laid back, comfortable attitude, smiling, chatting with friends, and just seemed so dang confident. Then, one night I saw him, and he seemed ill-at-ease, uncomfortable, and not so condifent. There was just 'something' about that man, on that night, that made me rethink my previous impressions about him. Maybe he didn't stand as tall, smile as much, or . . . whatever. Still, the impression that one night was of a non-confident man.

    Okay, now that I've rambled on and on . . . thanks for a great, thought-provoking post. I'm going to reexamine my characters now. : )

    H. L. Dyer said...
    I myself experienced the too-nutty phenomenon last fall.

    I don't understand it either.
    mand said...
    I thought from your title that you were going to talk about readers getting the impression we intend them to get of our characters. But no, you mean other characters getting the impression the characters intend them to get. Ha!

    My main chap is quick at evaluating both people and objects for the value and/or threat they offer. On the other hand, he's insecure, likes to come across as confident and someone you wouldn't mess with, but is too much of a physical coward to fool the lowlifes he mainly deals with. He can't take his drink, keeps being taken advantage of.

    Before starting my first rewrite i'm going to get some feedback on how much this all comes across to the reader, and if (as i suspect) it isn't coming across strongly enough, i'll have to make it more explicit OR put in more Telling Details. Subtle is all very well, but not if the reader misses it!

    I also need to make sure that all those negative traits don't put people off my man. I'm fond of him, personally, but can't rely on that seeping through. He has a kind heart and an ethical sense that he doesn't know about himself until later on. Enough of it has to colour his character from the start, or no one will want to keep reading about him.

    Thanx for articulating this as it's made me think more clearly about it. :0)
    Elana Johnson said...
    I think this is one of the hardest things about writing. We write something that WE think means something, but someone else sees it an entirely different way. I think the main thing to do is this: be consistent.
    Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...
    Wow. You really did mean balls. I thought you were talking about a ball hitch or something, but no. You really meant balls.

    Come to think of it, I have seen them before. It never really fazed me until just now. (Isn't that sad?)

    So, anyway...the impression my MC wants to give others is that she's tough, she's happy, whatever is bothering her deep down inside isn't really bothering her.

    To mere acquaintances, she's a fun-loving party girl, but those who really spend a lot of time with her know she is evasive in moments when she's tested.

    (One of the opening lines of chapter 1 comes directly from the MC's head: I fought my soul's toughest battles within earshot of the strangers who knew me best.)

    That kind of false impression she wants to give sets her up for a lot of heartache. A lot.

    A lot.

    A lot.


    This was a great post!
    Annie Louden said...
    I got a score of 10 which means I'm a relatively low self-monitor. Do you think that's accurate, since you know me?

    I've seen those things on pick-up trucks. Gross and stupid. I would probably think a wolf tail was cool, though.

    That's a really great tip to have your characters think about their impressions of other characters. I've not thought of that, and I think it will really help me figure out my characters.
    Anonymous said...
    I haven't seen those balls around here, and this is a largely RN area...

    Is the "impression" or "sending the intended message" problem lessened by writing part of the book through that character's POV?

    I love all your articles!
    Unknown said...
    Great post - both for writing and just life in general. In my character sketching mode, I always pause to ask myself, "How does this character perceive himself?" and "How do others perceive him?" The difference in answers is often quite telling.
    Shannon said...
    Well that is certainly food for thought. I think I've done a decent job of playing around with Impression Management in my novel but I can always do more ... especially when my protagonist becomes a teenager.

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