I’ve just read an article about ‘thin-slicing’. Apparently that’s what we do nearly all the time. We base our judgements and decisions on split second observations of thin slices of behaviour. And, surprisingly perhaps, we’re usually right. The easy examples are of sportspeople behaving almost instinctively as they pass the ball, shoot for the hoop or whatever. But the most interesting for writers is that we apparently form an impression of people we meet within the first few seconds and then just notice things which confirm that impression.
So the laborious presentations that people have prepared for situations such as interviews or wanting to impress the future in-laws seem to be a waste of time. The first handshake, eye contact, hairstyle choice, colour of jacket or God knows what else has already made up the mind of the person you’re meeting.
I wonder whether we also ‘thin-slice’ the characters we ‘meet’ in books. Is the initial impression so crucial? Or does the leisurely process of an unfolding narrative change the nature of our perceptions? We don’t, after all, have the direct, instinctive signals of body language to help us and anyway we know we’re reading stuff that’s made up, we’re collaborating in an actual fiction.
Wait a minute, though, isn’t that what we’re doing in the ‘real’ world? If the psychologists are right and we’re seeing somebody, making a judgement about him/her and then just looking for clues which prove that we’re right, we’re just turning reality to our own ongoing fiction? We’re telliung the ‘story’ of that person to ourselves, making up the world as we go along.
But to look at it purely from the writer’s viewpoint, does that mean that the best approach is to thin slice our characters? Introduce them by deciding who/what they are and make sure they say or do something right at the start which ‘fixes’ them, leaves little room for the reader to misinterpret them? If that’s the case, it seems to me that the best way to do that is to let the character say something, speak for him/herself. The moment we start describing hair, eyes, clothes, bulk, etc. we’re offering generalisations, archetypes. The clothes they’re wearing, their bulk or whatever are all clues which just invite speculation. However much we then refine them to what we think are the specifics of that individual, the risk is that the reader’s already decided that s/he’s seeing a fat slob or a peacock. So let them speak for themselves, condemn or ingratiate themselves out of their own mouths.
Whatever the truth of it all, it just adds to the fascinating complexity of the reading (and writing) experience.
Post by Bill Kirton