Cultivating Recognition

Commonalities Bring Our Guard Down

One of the most ground-breaking videos I ever watched–in my entire life–was a segment on “60 Minutes” where Lesley Stahl interviewed researchers studying how humans develop morality. The research shown in “The Baby Lab” suggests we start out, unsurprisingly, liking characters/people who are kind over those who are selfish or mean. But babies also showed a strong hatred of someone unlike themselves. They disliked “different” characters–even if they only acted kindly. The research went as far as suggesting that babies want to see characters unlike themselves punished. One of the researchers summarized:

“A bias to favor the self, where the self could be people who look like me, people who act like me, people with the same tastes as me, is a very strong human bias.”

It’s worth watching the whole video to discover where the bigotry of infants fades with enculturation at around age nine or ten. We become generous, and we express altruism more often. But even as adults, when we are stressed out, we can revert to our baser instincts, and that’s where prejudices like racism, sexism, and homophobia flourish once more.

So both when meeting real people and when reading about characters in stories, we are keeping a mental tally. We shunt facts we learn about someone into virtual folders: positive, neutral, and negative. If we hear too many neutral facts before a positive one, we lose interest. If we hear too many negative facts before a positive one, we can be repulsed.

But an almost magical spell takes over as soon as we hear that we are like someone else, even in a trivial way: We project. We project that every other unconfirmed facet of the other person is also like us, or at least we hope that’s true. We get more engaged and excited with each new commonality, more easily letting the neutral and negative realizations pass with forgiveness.

We start our evaluation at a distance. Are things as superficial as their skin tone, hair style, clothing colors, gestures, and facial expressions like us? We notice posture, the amount of space between them and others, even how they smell, before we even hear them speak a word.

In writing fiction we have a bit more flexibility about what we reveal first about a character. We may not know the main character’s age, race, or name early on, and the choice to withhold that may be strategic. When we think about what aspects of a character we want to reveal first, we may choose something trivial. Ideally, something quirky but common among our readers, so we can cultivate the sense of recognition. An easy one is to reveal that your character loves reading fiction like yours, because your readers are almost certainly going to identify with that.

Once you have hit on one or two positive matches with your readers, they are much more likely to accept differences they see in your characters. To cover your bases, try introducing a contrasting character early on. Then if one character is not piquing their interest soon enough, the other one has a chance at achieving it.

And keep in mind that the more people learn about you, the more likely you will have cast your spell: They will have found something in you they recognize.

This is part three of a series of posts on evoking specific emotions in readers. Check back in three weeks for my post on “Using Signalling.”

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