Analyze You, Categorize You*

CategoriesWe’re all exposed to so much stimuli in our daily lives that there’s no way that we can make sense of it all. That can make it very difficult to take in and remember the things that are important. One thing that helps us in that process is putting people and things we encounter into categories. For instance, we put work colleagues into one category, and at one level of intimacy. We put close friends in another. We put partners and spouses into yet another. Those categories often determine how we treat people and even the way we speak to them.

The trouble is of course that people are far too complicated to be so easily put into categories. And when it comes to fictional characters, I’m quite certain that like me, you wouldn’t want your fictional characters to be that one-dimensional anyway. But I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us make assumptions about others based on categories we (however unconsciously) put them in when we meet them.

The conflict between what others want to assume and what’s really true about people can make for a solid thread of tension in a story. I’ll just mention a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Grant Munro asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate when a strange family moves into the area where he and his wife Effie live. Munro is especially concerned because he thinks there may be a connection between the new family moving in and the growing distance he’s sensing between himself and Effie. He has the strong feeling that she’s keeping things from him, and that she knows more about this family than she’s saying. Holmes agrees to investigate, and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter. As it turns out, both the new family and Effie’s reluctance to confide in her husband have everything to do with the conflict between the categories into which people are put, and the reality of Effie’s life.

Malla Nunn’s series featuring DS Emmanuel Cooper takes place in 1950’s Johannesburg. At that time, and in that place, people are placed into categories based on one factor: race. The apartheid laws are firmly in effect and determine where people may live, eat and shop. They determine whom people may marry and what sort of job, education, medical care and public service they are likely to get. Racial categories are in fact so rigidly enforced that breaking those barriers can get a person imprisoned or much worse. More than once in this series, there are conflicts between those imposed categories and the realities of peoples’ lives.

Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House also touches (although less obviously) on racial and ethnic categories. In that novel, Stockholm police detective Conny Sjöberg and his team investigate when real estate professional Hans Vannerberg is murdered in the kitchen of a home not far from his own. The police don’t have many leads at first; but then, two other murders occur. Both victims are the same age as Vannerberg, and Sjöberg begins to suspect that the killings are connected. One of the members of the police team is Jamal Hamad, whose family moved to Stockholm from Lebanon. In language, dress and so on, Hamad is as Swedish as the other members of the team are. He is a Swedish citizen and that’s the way he lives. But his colleagues still put him in a different category because of where he was born. They respect his work, and they do enjoy his company, but some of what they say and do shows that they think of him as Middle Eastern, even though he isn’t.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we are introduced to Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his family. One of the ‘regulars’ in this series is Puri’s mother, usually referred to as Mummy-ji. She’s by no means frail and helpless, but she is getting on in years, and even her own son puts her into a certain category based on that fact. One of the ongoing threads of tension in this series is Mummy-ji‘s refusal to fit into the ‘older female’ category into which so many people want to place her. And I know that you can think of lots of other examples of that particular source of conflict in crime novels – more than I could.

Many, many people put parents into certain categories based on assumptions. You know what I mean, especially if you are a parent: “Good’ parents always/would never ______.’ Or, ‘Oh, that must be a horrible parent! Just look at ___.’ Of course, there are some things (like outright physical abuse) that we can pretty much all agree are signs of poor parenting. But in a lot of cases it’s not that easy to put parents into one or another category. Yet, people do. That’s what happens, for instance, in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and her partner Alistair Robertson travel from Joanna’s home in Scotland to Alistair’s home near Melbourne. As anyone who’s made that sort of trip knows, it’s a very long flight, and it’s complicated by the fact that they’re bringing with them their nine-week-old son Noah. As it is, Noah isn’t an ‘easy’ baby, and it’s only made worse by the flight. The whole experience is harrowing for Joanna in particular, and several of her fellow passengers make all sorts of assumptions about her based on that flight. If you’ve ever been on a long flight with parents who have infants, you can understand the other passengers’ irritation. But as it turns out, the flight is only the beginning of Joanna’s and Alistair’s misery. On the trip from the airport at Melbourne to their destination, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their baby. The media, the police and the public quickly jump to their aid, and a massive search is made for Noah. Then, questions begin to be raised about Noah’s disappearance. And this leads to increasing suspicion of, especially, Joanna. Now her parenting and Alistair’s come under the proverbial microscope more than ever.

People often put commercial sex workers into categories based on what they do for a living. And the tension between that perception and the reality of sex workers’ lives is a plot point in Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District. In the former, brothel owner Candace Curtis hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson to trace one of her employees, Mary Carmen Santamaria, who seems to have disappeared. In the process of investigating, Jackson has to resolve the conflict between her preconceived notions about prostitution, and the reality of it:

You have a database of hookers?’… [Jackson]
‘Please, don’t call them hookers. Most of the girls use the term intimacy consultant, though some call themselves relaxation therapists. I know they’re euphemisms, but they’re important to the girls’ self esteem.’
‘Consultants. Right. Got it.’


These are professionals, and Jackson has to face the fact that she hasn’t really thought about them that way before.

There are lots of other categories that we use for people, especially if we don’t know them. On the one hand categories are efficient and they help us remember. On the other, they’re often very limiting. That conflict can add some really interesting tension to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want to Do.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Carin Gerhardsen, Helen Fitzgerald, Jill Edmondson, Malla Nunn, Tarquin Hall

32 responses to “Analyze You, Categorize You*

  1. Margot, that tendency to put people into “slots” runs through all the Bony novels of Arthur Upfield. DI Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland, Australia, police is half-Caucasian, half-Aborigine, and he is frequently “slotted” as one or the other by many of the people he meets. One of the most successful novels, “Man of Two Tribes,” even includes that idea in its title, as Bony must draw on the skills of both ethnic groups to rescue himself and a large group of other people as well. As you know, I’m a fan of these books, and the tension added by that racial slotting is a major factor in just about all of the books.

    • It sure is, Les! And I’m very glad you brought it up. What I find interesting is that Upfield addressed that issue years ago – long before a lot of the modern civil rights and indigenous rights movements. I’ve always thought that showed foresight.

  2. Clarissa Draper

    I know the Val McDermid series always talks about sex workers and they often put them into a specific group. A lot of suspicions fall to this group because of the reputation that goes along with that trade. Good topic.

    • Thanks, Clarissa. And you’re right about McDermid’s novels. That tendency to put sex workers into specific groups extends to the way their deaths are investigated as well as the way they themselves are treated.

  3. Analyse This! jokes aside, we do have a tendency to pre-judge or categorise based on very little information. Instinct though is a way of self-preservation and I think a lot of judgement calls come from it. Always a good thing to reserve that judgement before jumping in!

  4. Kay

    Just want to say that Tarquin Hall’s books are so good and I love Mummy-ji! She is hilarious! Kind of like Grandma Mazur in Janet Evanovich’s books.

    • Oh, I love Mummy-ji too, Kay! She’s a great character and she is just a really authentic kind of person. And you’re right; she is reminiscent of Grandma Masur. Neither one wants to put into that ‘old lady who should just sit in a rocking chair’ sort of category.

  5. The example of sex workers is a really good one Margot – ‘intimacy consultant’ does not convince me however, though it sounds like a really good idea 🙂

    • Sergio – No, it’s not a really convincing term is it? And yet I do understand why those folks don’t want to called some of the other names they’re called. I don’t know what the solution is, to be honest. But it does show I think our tendency to put people in a certain category when they’re in that business.

  6. Margot you raise some very interesting issues/prejudices here that we are all guilty of – judging others… Just finished reading Monday’s Lie – Jamie Mason – the protagonists in this book use lots of memory tricks/games to remember /place people – so very interesting to read and think about.
    I had a job in a bank when I first left school – a guy from one of the
    “upstairs” departments walked through our office and then a few minutes later we were asked o describe him – we hadn’t really paid any attention – he fit the part of office worker and we paid no attention – that was an interesting experiment. (I think it was meant to show us how little attention we paid and if in case of a robbery how useless we would be unless we paid attention).

    I am currently reading a book called House of Grief – Helen Garner – about a trial – where a father is charged with deliberately driving into a dam with his 3 kids strapped in the car -he gets out they dont. So much of the trial is based on perceptions/judgements of character – of the lawyers, the expert witnesses, the accused and his family…I would hate to be on a jury.

    • Carol – I’d hate to be on that jury, too. I think you’re right that in cases like that, it really does have a lot o do with perception. I’ll be interested in what you think of the way Garner handles a case like that once you’ve read it. The premise sound compelling.
      It’s funny you would mention that experiment. I used to do a sort of related experiment with my students. I’d be going on as usual, and then I would stop and announce that I was leaving the room for five minutes, during which time they were to write down a description of me. I would duly leave and return, and it was always really interesting to see what their descriptions were like.

      • Margot finished Garner’s book – it was a very compelling read – written in accessible language, looking at the individuals, their lives now and then… the situations they faced… listening to “experts”… all this material came together without an agenda…I am glad I didn’t have to decide someone’s fate…I think perceptions played major role in the outcome of the court case…

        Isnt memory interesting….seems to be a popular theme at the moment in many books I have read.

        • Carol – Oh, I think it’s absolutely fascinating too! And there are a lot of books dealing with that topic. I also think that the way our own perceptions so often affect what we think we see or remember. And I think it’s partly those perceptions that are behind the way we put people into categories.

  7. Col

    I found the Tarquin Hall book the other week. I’m encouraged to move it closer to the top of the pile.

    • Oh, glad you have that one, Col. It is a good ‘un, and really does give a solid look at life in Delhi, among other things. If you do read it, I hope you’ll like it.

  8. What a great idea for a post as this is something we all tend to do, putting people in categories and the converse, trying to demonstrate that we belong in another category. In Little Lies by Liane Moriarty most of the mothers at the school gates are trying to prove they are ‘good mothers’ whilst behaving behind the scenes in a way that perhaps demonstrates that this is in part, at least, an act!

    • Thanks, Cleo. And I think you’re right that we do tend to put people in categories, even though our rational minds tell us that it’s not that simple. Little Lies is a great example of that too. Everyone has a notion of what ‘counts’ as being ‘a good parent.’ It’s interesting how those preconceptions impact the way we think of others (and of ourselves, really).

  9. In Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder there is a young woman whom people have been encouraged to think of as ‘man-mad’, troublesome and perhaps too flirty. It is memorably sad when Miss Marple points out how they have been misled and why. A dark moment.

    • Moira – Oh, that’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post. Yes, that’s a very sad scene, and it shows hoe people can be misled by their assumptions about people. Thanks for adding this one in.

  10. This is so true! I’ve never really thought about it before, but we DO put people into categories. I do love how your mind works, Margot!

    • You’re assuming, Sue, that my mind actually works ;-)… I honestly think that sometimes we put people into categories so easily and unconsciously that we simply don’t pay attention to what we’re doing.

  11. A recurring feature in crime fiction is the ex-con and how the police never really can accept that they might have ‘reformed’. I always find that interesting because it’s a prejudice I can’t help sharing, even though my rational mind says that prison should be about rehabilitation more than punishment. But ‘ex-offender’ is a category it’s hard, if not impossible, for anyone to break out of.

    • Oh, right you are, FictionFan! The ex-offender is always the first, best suspect when the police are investigating a crime. And it’s not just the police, either. That status – as an ex-offender – plays a big role in everything from jobs to housing to people who are willing to consider you as a partner. As you say, we want to think of prison as rehabilitative, but there is a part, sometimes a big part, in a lot of people that questions that at some level.

  12. Margot: In legal mystery fiction involving defence lawyers they tend to be stereotyped as either heroic, Jake Brigance in the Mississippi mysteries of John Grisham, or sleazy, Mickey Haller in the Los Angeles mysteries of Michael Connelly. I appreciate the need for dramatic effect but it makes me sigh in real life as people’s expectations of defence counsel oscillate between the extremes.

    • Bill – That’s exactly the thing about putting people into categories. As you know from your own real-life experiences, people are really not like that. Not to say that people like Jake Brigance don’t exist. But most attorneys, I’d guess, are neither truly heroic or truly sleazy. It just doesn’t work that way.

  13. Very interesting, Margot – and the shrewd detective can manipulate this tendency in order to throw people off their guard. Miss Marple is always being written off as a fluffy, unworldly old lady, and there’s Columbo who lets the suspect think he’s a shambling incompetent and then springs the trap . . .

    • Thanks for the kind words, Christine. And yes, there are certainly sleuths who take advantage of that tendency. I love the way Columbo uses that ‘he’s just a dumb cop’ image. And Miss Marple and also I think Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver use their ‘harmless old lady’ image.

  14. I like that comment by Christine about how Columbo is categorized by the way he dresses. Even though I don’t personally dress fashionably at all, I do find often that I judge a person by their dress, and I try so hard not to categorize people in any way.

    • Tracy – I know what you mean. People really do put others into categories by style of dress, regardless of how inaccurate that may be. I ought to do a post on that actually, because it’s all over crime fiction.

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