We’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.