Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oh, Expectations, I Can Always Count On You (Except When I Can’t)

Last month I finally read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (I’d only been meaning to read it for like three years now). And even though it didn’t feature any aliens or monsters (like most things I read), I really liked it anyway. I thoroughly enjoyed Junior’s sense of humor. The book was a great example of how humor can be inserted into a narrative that explores some messed up stuff. Rather than undercutting hardships, his humor stands in juxtaposition to them and makes the sad parts more cutting and memorable because of the contrast. Also, humor endears the protagonist to the reader (me!) even more.

Something Alexie wrote came back to me weeks after reading the book:

"It sucks to be poor and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it."

This got me thinking about expectations. We all have them and as writers, we build them into our characters, whether consciously or not.

But I’m talking about deeper expectations. Expectations of ourselves and our world that are ingrained into us so deeply it’s like they’re passed down in the genes. Inherited expectations that seem to be a part of the institutions we interact with on a daily basis. Not just individual expectations, but expectations we learn from the cultures we grow up in (or adapt to).

It’s something I’ve thought about before. A broader term may be “mentalities.” Our mentalities come from a lot of different places, but starts – in my non-professional opinion – with our families, our communities, and our cultures– and of course, culture isn’t something only identified by race or ethnic identity. While I believe that people are individuals and (ideally) thinking people, and therefore responsible for their own actions, there is a cultural weight that sits on our shoulders. It’s that group mentality that pressures us all to maintain the status quo, even if we aren’t consciously conscious of it.

Unconsciously internalizing cultural expectations, can block a person from seeing their potential beyond the less-than-stellar-ness around them. I’m not saying that there aren't obstacles or even a whole bunch of people who won’t want that person succeed, but who stands a chance when the mentality you grow up around is to not even try.

Conversely, unconsciously internalizing cultural expectations can give a person a sense of entitlement, as in: even if so-and-so doesn’t deserve the fill-in-the-blank, they feel they should get the fill-in-the-blank anyway just because they’re so-and-so.

Think about how empowering it would be to know that you can and will get everything you want? How different is that life is from that of the person who expects to never get anything they want. Or even from the life of the person who believes they will get what they work hard for, no more and no less.

I’ve only mentioned two opposite ends of the spectrum, but there are all kinds of expectations of the world floating around in the minds of humans. We’ve all experienced the effects of cultural expectations or certain culturally ingrained mentalities. Some people benefit from them, others…not so much. While this is worth thinking about in the real world, we’re fiction writers. What do we care about reality?

So how to apply this to you characters? (I bet you already know the answer.)

Go beyond the surface expectations or the obvious stuff. Some of our characters inherit our own mentalities by default, but when it's called for you to jump into the mentality of someone completely “other” from you, here's some stuff to consider.

What do small expectations say about big expectations? Does their mentality line up with their upbringing and the people around them? Or are they fighting against culturally ingrained expectations? Are they all external expectations or have some of them been internalized? Is your character even aware of it? How do the systems in place around your character ensure that these expectations, negative or positive, are met? How can your bad buys/antagonists' motivations be deepened by this line of questioning? How can this help you avoid writing in stereotypes? How does this help you world build?

The questions can go on and on and on and on because even if your character was raised in a vacuum, that vacuum probably had an affect on him.

Bits and pieces of this idea pops up in my writing. Specifically, I see this issue starting to form in one manuscript in particular. I had put it there on purpose, but hadn't thought about it in exactly this way. I hadn't put the idea I was leaning towards into words. I'll definitely explore it more in this manuscript because I see its relevance to those characters. But even if culturally ingrained mentalities aren't what my stories are "about," I can use it as a tool to think about my characters in a way that adds layers, which in turn can deepen a story.

What about you, is this something you've thought much about when writing your characters?


  1. Fascinating, Cacy. I was struck at first by the author's words concerning culturally imposed, beliefs of limitations: You can't do anything about it.
    I think this is the very reason I write and read stories. To understand why I don't do anything about it, to learn how to go about doing something about it, why I should change or why I shouldn't, and to understand others who choose to stay within or stretch beyond cultural limitations. The characters are a wonderful way to try on different cultural wardrobes and understand how they work or why they don't.
    Very thought provoking post!

  2. Glad you dug it, Misty. This is such a surface, tip-of-the-iceberg post on the topic because there's so much about it worth discussing like how did those imposed beliefs form in the first place? Trying answer alone that could fill a ten volume treatise...or a novel :~)

  3. A great post about overcoming the ingrained expectations, cliches, and stereotypically thinking that somehow worm their way into our minds. I'll have to remind myself to think outside of the box. Maybe it will improve my writing.

  4. I'm hoping doing that will help me improve mine too ;~)

  5. This was a really thoughtful and insightful post (with hilarious pictures to boot). It's got me thinking about my character's motivations, and how their perception of being mired in their circumstances prevents them from moving forward.

  6. Thanks! Glad to give you something to think about. Personally, though, I'm disappointed in myself. I didn't realize until two days later that I could have a worked an Arrested Development clip in there!

  7. Excellent post! Very thoughtful.

    This is something that figures in my novel because I have some poor characters and some rich characters thrown together and eventually they come to see the world a little more through each others eyes and abandon some of their preconceived notions.

  8. What a great post! Very thoughtful and through-provoking, and anything with Far Side cartoons is always appreciated!

    Alos, I have an award for you on my blog.

  9. Thank you, and thank you.

    That's cool, Girl Friday. My character is beginning to enter a world of privilege so I get to have lot of fun there. Weee!

    I appreciated the award, Jen. And Larson does indeed rock.