Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fashion! Politics! Persuasion!

I admit I'm a news junky. I love reading the stuff. So it was interesting to read this fluff piece (BUT please don’t read it until you finish the quiz below) that compared the fashion acumen of the spouses of Republican candidates.

From the article, I’ve made up a little quiz. Can you match the author’s fashion appraisal with the candidate? (all quotes are taken verbatim from the article except for making them gender neutral)

The participants: Ann Romney, Callista Gingrich, Mary Kaye Huntsman, Anita Perry, Karen Santorum, Carol Paul, and Marcus Bachmann (Michelle has since dropped out).

The statements:
  1. Though this candidate is the youngest of the potential first spouses, “they seem determined not to show it.  They favour quite a dated style: bright suits with shoulderpads, and somewhat frumpy court shoes.”
  2. “In terms of style they have it spot-on…a sharp sartorial instinct ensures they are always occasion-appropriate too.”
  3. “…The least showy…their look is not a manufactured one – dresses are chosen because they flatter their shape, and they are probably favorurites that they brings out time and time again.”
  4. “In a manner that is easy when one has plenty of money, their style is effortlessly low-key.”
  5. “They could have been the grande dame of the GOP wives/husbands. Instead…they take a back seat from media attention.”
  6. “We never see them dolled-up – or even on the campaign trail for that matter.”
  7. The last participant has a bio blurb, but as far as fashion, the author has nothing to say.
As you tried to figure those out, what opinions were you forming in your head about each person? Did terms like ‘easy…money,’ ‘frumpy,’ 'dolled-up,' or ‘sartorial instinct' (yes, I had to look it up, too – it means having to do with tailoring) help to guide what you thought of the person?

(Quiz answers, since I hate scrolling to the bottom. Romney: 4; Gingrich: 1; Huntsman: 2; Perry: 3; Santorum: ; Paul: 5; Bachmann: 7.

The pen is mightier than the sword because it can sway opinion. By picking a few details from complex lives, and by carefully choosing the vocabulary used to divulge those details, a writer can lead readers to view people and events in a certain way. (This occurs all the time, not just in politics, but where anyone has strong feelings - objectivity is a myth) Anyway, this article got me thinking about how readers also come to form opinions of characters in literary works.

As writers, we have quite a bit of control over what opinion the reader will have of our fictional characters. Perhaps one of my favorite types of story is one where I have one kind of sentiment for a character at the beginning, and then find my opinion changing drastically as more of the character is revealed.

Pride and Prejudice does this masterfully, I think (as does Harry Potter). And I did mean to reread all of P&P so I could point out examples chapter and verse, but alas, Melanie has got me so consumed with Burn Notice I haven’t even fed the kids in days, let alone read anything. Sigh.

Jane Austen employed several techniques that successfully swayed her readers into an initially skewed view of the characters. Here are a few.
  1. Let someone else’s opinion inform the readers. Only a few pages into the P&P there is a dance. Although Mr. Darcy is described as a ‘fine, tall person, having handsome features and a noble mien’ (not to mention that 10K pounds a year), it is only a few pages later that the Lucas and Bennet ladies get together and we hear their opinion that he is utterly disagreeable and prideful. Readers tend to immerse themselves in a story, so unless they have a cause not to, they generally believe what other characters say about each other. This can lead to delicious misperceptions that color events and prejudice the reader.
  2. Keep a distance. I have seen books in first person that were able to fool the reader about even the narrator, but it’s easier if the reader is not in the character’s head. Then his actions can speak louder than his motivations. Which brings us to…
  3. Actions speak louder than words. My, wasn’t Mr. Wickam dashing? Wasn’t his manner affable, gentlemanly, and everything Mr. Darcy was not? 
  4. Use mannerisms. Reticence, shyness, blustering, twitches - mannerisms can be used to prejudice readers into a certain way of thinking. Mr. Darcy was so vilified at the beginning of P&P because he wouldn’t dance with anyone. Even though Jane tried to explain that he was only comfortable around intimate acquaintances, his mannerisms were all anyone (including the reader) needed to form an opinion.
  5. Lastly, use setting to your advantage. The effect of this has been somewhat diluted because of all the juxtapositions UF uses, I think, but we are often lulled into believing certain things about people by where they are found – bars or palaces, torture chambers or homesteads. Familiar haunts can tell the reader a lot about a character, or lead them astray if needed.



  1. I've got to admit I didn't get one of the answers right on the quiz...rereading them, I should have gotten a couple of them right when you added the clues.

    I love your hints on how to control the reader's opinion. I'm terrible at this. I want to add mystery, but I'm much too straightforward. I'm thinking about adding a few of these touches when I rewrite my current story. I love Jane Austen!

  2. And I wish I could come hang out with you so we could watch Burn Notice together. Isn't it an amazing show??? Today at Home Depot I found myself scanning the perimeter of the parking lot. I'm such a geek.

  3. That was an interesting article, and fascinating how word and subject choices can color how a person is portrayed. The media has so much power.

    Love how you applied it to writing. I love those type of stories too where at first you hate a character but then grow to love them as you understand them better. Great suggestions for pulling it off.

  4. I think it's interesting how they describe the spouses in how they dress, with just a slight comment on who they actually are. I would hate to be a political wife.

    Although I would like the retirement options...

    Great post.

  5. That quiz had great examples of how one well-chosen phrase can have a lot more impact than an entire paragraph of straight description. But I don't think I know what a single GOP candidate's wife looks like so I failed :)

    It can be very disconcerting when critical details come too late. My old book club read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which has a romantic subplot that begins rather late in the book. Unfortunately, by the time the male love interest was revealed, several of us had already imagined him quite differently, and then we couldn't make our brains switch over. Sort of ruined the book. That has to do with physical description, though. Revealing deeper layers of a character's personality is always interesting.


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