Saturday, September 19, 2009

Johnny, Dressed in Layers

You're at a cocktail party. A young man walks up to you and introduces himself.

"Hi, I'm Johnny. I'm a status-seeking pre-med student with a low tolerance for financial instability and a moderate tolerance for emotional instability. Can I get you a drink?"

Yeah, that ought to woo the women.

We very rarely craft our self-images to project our emotional needs (even though the end result might betray those needs). But we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how we hope to be, the image we wish to project, and what we want others to think of us.

It's something more than simple self-image. It's a combination of self-image and projected image, with a healthy dose of hiding just to keep things interesting.

If you're at all familiar with astrology, you might already have some basis for understanding this concept. (We're going to file this under "things I learned in creative writing school.") When an astrologer casts a natal chart, the first three placements identified are the sun sign, the moon sign, and the rising sign.

The sun sign is a person's core personality, the foundational traits which will always make up part of their character in some way. These traits can be magnified or diminished by other factors, but they're still pretty constant. When we say things like, "Geminis have quick minds," or, "Capricorns are good with money," we're usually referencing a sun sign trait. And when we read our horoscopes in the newspaper, we're reading for our sun signs.

When creating a character, the "sun sign" part of it will be things like long-term goals, backstory, immutable traits, socioeconomic position, career path, and the other enduring, big-picture factors that can be used to define the basics of who that character is. When a character defines himself or herself, these traits will factor strongly on the list. Example: Betty Draper is an upper-middle class housewife who worked briefly as a model before stepping in to her expected role of wife and mother. She has three children, a husband, and one married brother. She enjoys riding horses and uses and English saddle. Men are strongly attracted to her, and she places a lot of value on appearances.

The rising sign is the person's external or public personality. Think of this like a layer of external traits on top of the core personality, much like a layer of clothing over the body. Just as line and color and texture of a dress can influence the way the body looks, the traits of the rising sign can make a character "look" a certain way. Rising sign traits are often the first things we notice about people, even though they are often not the most important.

When creating a character, the "rising sign" part of it will be how others see the character. It's a mixture of projected image and actual impact on others. Part of thinking through this part of the character requires us to understand where a character tries but fails to create certain impressions. Example: Betty Draper is well-spoken but she doesn't have much to say. Her person and her home are meticulously well-maintained, but she does little of the actual maintenance work herself, though she does think she struggles to maintain a "perfect" facade. People think she's naive, pampered, and lucky, but when they get to know her better, they feel sorry for her. The impact she has on people, therefore, depends somewhat on how well they know her.

The moon sign in a natal chart indicates the hidden or shadow side of ourselves. This is the part of ourselves we hope people won't notice, the part we try to leave out of our public personalities. This doesn't make this part of us less real or valid. It also doesn't mean it's an automatic negative. But it does mean that we might not be quite as accepting of these parts of ourselves. The moon sign, in some ways, points to where we will struggle.

In creating a character, the "moon sign" often relates to our deep emotional needs and how we try to obscure them. These are the parts of ourselves we don't want others to notice. Is the character insecure? Hot-tempered? Afraid of her own basement? These might be seen as flaws, but they don't have to be outright bad traits. Think also of the ways a character indulges in self-sabotage (the dieter who hides candy in her sock drawer), takes a good trait too far (is he a saver or a miser?), or tries to obscure his upbringing or cultural background (the white suburban kid who dreadlocks his hair and tells you it's iree). Finally, think of the traits people will know only when they know us well. Everyone might know the man on the corner who is the high school football coach, who has outfitted his garage like a boxing ring, who drives a Hummer and wears the blackest sunglesses and the toughest leather coats. How many people also know that he grows and breeds show violets with his wife? How might he explain this when it becomes known, and what does it say about his self-image?

How does this relate to Johnny? We've already defined some of his core externals (pre-med, good student, etc.) and some of his shadow-self needs (status, and the ways status manifest for him). But there's more to it than this. How does Johnny want people to see him?

Johnny won't talk openly about seeing the world as a hierarchy and wanting to be as close to the top of the heap as possible. He will talk about money (which frequently masks another emotional need) and his elevated tastes. He might joke about being high maintenance. (This would be a joke to him, because we can diminish the dark part of ourselves by laughing about it.) He might use one obvious aspect of his shadow self to try to deflect attention away from the truth. Example: He might talk about his love of a good meal in a fine restaurant in terms of the food and flavors and choices, but in fact he thinks most steaks taste pretty much the same and he chose this restaurant because it's the "best" in town. There's a chance he won't admit even to himself that he would be just as happy with a Big Mac. We frequently turn a blind eye to our own shadow selves.

But this doesn't mean we can escape them. Johnny will dress and walk and talk a certain way to cultivate a certain image. Whether this effort yields success, and at what point people begin to see through it to his deeper self, is part of what makes people -- and fiction -- interesting.

So. You're a beautiful young girl at a cocktail party. You see a man, Johnny, across the room. Tell me--
1) What he is wearing.
2) What he does when you make eye contact with him.
3) How long it takes him to approach you.
4) How he approaches you.
5) What he says when he finally reaches you.

(Because, when it comes right down to it, lists of traits are nowhere near as interesting as watching a person with those traits in action. This is storytelling.)



Riley Murphy said...

My Johnny is wearing a perfectly pressed pair of black dress pants. A snow white shirt with a fashionable tie (he would have taken off his suit jacket, but left his shirt sleeves buttoned at the cuffs)

When I make I eye contact with him he gives me a half smile before he abruptly turns away. (ah, the hook. He's a smart guy - he knows I'm pretty so I'd be used to men looking at me. In fact I'd be expecting it, so when he does the opposite of my expectations I'm intrigued.)

He waits a good half hour before he approaches me. (He has two reasons for this. I'm pretty and many admirers have already quickly approached and been rebuffed. He's special so he needs to distance himself from the pact. His second reason is that he needs to make sure that I see that he’s well liked within this peer group before he advances.)

When he does approach, it’s direct. Like he's made a decision and nothing, not even the few people who've just arrived and are now hailing him in greeting, would sway him from his purpose. (This gives the act of his approaching more power. I feel important as he single mindedly advances toward me)

And when he arrives, he stands in front of me, very close, and says in a far too intimate tone, “I’m glad you waited for me.” (Which could mean many things - but to him, it simply means he knows he's worth the wait and I’ve chosen wisely. And really, when you think of it like that, how can a gal argue with that logic?)

Say Murphy, who in real life, would've turned him down the second she heard his name was Johnny. Johnny? Sheesh!

Jordan McCollum said...

He's wearing Armani—easy to recognize as designer = status.

When he makes eye contact, he totally checks me out. I might think this is in a superficial way, and in some way, it is—but he's looking jsut as much at how I'm acting, what I'm wearing, what I'm drinking (mmm, milk) and who I'm talking to (and if he happens to already know who I am, his knowledge of my history/family). What he's wondering is twofold: would being seen with this woman enhance others' perceptions of me? Does she recognize and value the status I carry?

He ponders this for a while, making a vague effort to continue his insipid conversation with . . . whoever this person is (Andy? Arnie?). If and when he decides the answers are "yes," he's going to try to act confident and direct. He's supposed to run with people who know what they want (even if he doesn't). But he'd still try to act casual so if he does get shot down, it looks like not a big deal.

He might try to guess my drink (unless it's milk, because that's obvious), but he'd be too afraid of getting it wrong and looking stupid, so he might directly offer to buy me a drink. A safe, tried-and-true opener that won't cost him too much face if I shut him down. It won't be far into a conversation before the fact that he's going to be a doctor comes up.

Fun! Who's next?

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Jordan! *waves*
I'm beginning to think that you and I are going to have tag team poor Johnny. Wait, what am I saying? POOR my ass! He's in for a treat! Where do ya want meet?
Murphy - who will be wearing freshly laundered clothes.:D

Anonymous said...

Good, this is a good start. Now consider what Johnny wants you to conclude about him. In what ways is he a little slippery? Is there anything he hopes to hide from you? Does he talk to other girls besides you?


Jordan said...

Oh, Murph, do you think we *can* tag team him? Wouldn't that make him look (shudder) indecisive?

What might he conceal . . . well, obviously that he'd secretly rather be at home watching football than at this stupid party—but he also wouldn't tell what he thinks of the poor slobs sitting at home in their sweats and potato chip crumbs watching men beat each other up over a stupid ball.

(And what he wouldn't even think about is his fear that he really isn't any better than those poor slobs, and in so many ways, actually envies them.)

But if he feels he's made enough of an appearance (because staying to the end of a party is a little gauche anyway), and if I've been warm enough to him (I admire "your Armani"), he might invite me to join him somewhere with high social cachet (but not, like, a partying kind of place. Classy bar or place with alcohol, live music and no sweaty kids gyrating).

He would probably have already spoken to other girls, so he doesn't look like a jerk, and so he has a fall back in case I, his true quest, reject him. He wouldn't want to end up a lone loser.

(Are we sure this is storytelling? Or is this an RPG? ;) )

Riley Murphy said...

Jordan, you say: Wouldn't that make him look (shudder) indecisive?

Who cares? I say separate him from the pacK (I really should proof my comments before I shoot them off) and move in for the kill. Cougars remember? Five minutes with us and there’d be no room for indecision - trust me.:D


As for what Johnny wants me to conclude about him? He wants me to think he's well liked among his peers, he's desirable among the ladies and he's a man who gets what he wants.

In what ways is he slippery? Good question.:) Well, he told many of the people who attended the party that he was a relative to the host. Of course they felt obligated to bring their friends or significant others to him for introduction. From my vantage point across the room, this seems that people are eager to meet him for his winning personality and not the truth: that they’re just guests making polite and expected introductions. He's also generously tipped the cocktail waitresses that are serving the party goers, so they fawn all over him. Cementing his appeal in my eyes, because he's the only guy in the room that constantly has a full glass all night.

What does he hope to hide from me? His fear of rejection. Let’s face it, he hasn’t put himself out there on any honest or real level. He’s manufactured his own buzz and if he fails with me he’ll justify that failure by saying he didn’t do a good enough job with the set-up. In his mind it’s all about appearances. If he succeeds with this - success will follow.

As for talking to other girls at the party. Of course he does. I’m probably going to get annoyed over this, because once he comes and stands with me, the female wait-staff continual make the rounds and fawn all over him. It’s enough of a distraction that I don’t even notice that the other women attending the party aren’t.

Murphy :D

Jami Gold said...

Jordan said:
Are we sure this is storytelling? Or is this an RPG? ;)

It's interesting you mention that, Jordan. That's actually how I first started building my WIP characters - by thinking of creating them like for an RPG character sheet. I don't mean that I ever meant to use them that way, but since I didn't know about authors' versions of character sheets at the time, I thought back to the old-school paper-and-pencil RPG character sheets - identifying strengths and weakness, the odd types of things they know or interests them, how much power/influence they have & and what the source of that power is, their life/family history, and where they were in life just before my little adventure for them began.

I have 2-3 pages written for around 12 characters. Thinking through their family background, knowing where they came from, both literally and figuratively, has really helped in discovering who they became and why.

Jami G.

Jami Gold said...

Okay Teresa,

My Johnny would look over and notice me, but not express too much interest right away. After all, he needs to investigate whether I'm "worthy" of his attention first. He already knows most of the people in this social circle, so he can make some low-key inquiries about "the new girl". Once he's determined that I would be an asset to his status, he would approach in a friendly, but not too obvious way - introducing himself in relation to friends we both have in common. That way, if I don't show interest, it just looks like a welcoming gesture on his part, without any appearance of rejection.

So, to me, I've seen a young man, well-dressed, well-mannered, and well-connected. I've seen him work the room, obviously familiar with the other guests. However, I wouldn't feel singled-out or special in his eyes yet. I wouldn't be aware of his interest, as he's hidden all of that so far.

Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

Hmm...JG, I'm wondering.
You say: ...has really helped in discovering who they became and why
I think you should re-phrase that to who they are and why. Because your characters predispositions and quirks might have been previously established from their history/upbringing, but this doesn't guarantee that those things will remain a constant throughout your story or beyond, right? They might influence your character in a positive or negative way, for a time, but there has to be growth. And wouldn't that come with understanding one's strengths and weaknesses? And presumably, if we want likeable characters - they will start to pay attention to their foibles and possibly do something to correct them - or at the very least accept them?

For me? I’d learn more about my Johnny’s character by examining the people he chooses to surround himself with . Take for instance, the pretty girl at the party that he makes eye contact with? She told me that he is impressed with looks. You know why? She never questioned whether he’d make a move on her - no, the question was, how long would it take for him to come to her side. So, what did I learn? Appearances are important to both of them. He sees her beauty and is drawn to it. She knows she’s pretty and he’ll eventually approach. The difference of the two that compliment each other in a very shallow way - is that she has no fear of being rejected, where as, he does. He goes to great lengths to make sure that she doesn’t rebuff him - by playing up all the unimportant things she deems as ‘her idea of status worthy’ - he appears well liked, girls fawn on him - people greet him. In actual fact, her list of what is appealing is longer than his. He simply wants to align himself with someone who has something he doesn’t. And that’s absolute confidence in personal appeal. After all, if he lands a woman like that he’s one step closer to completing the picture perfect life.

But um, his eyes can’t help secretly straying to the plumb gal in the corner. The cute brunette who double dips her chip in the guacamole, without offering any excuses for the faux pas. He finds her too loud laugh, endearing and the way she tries to inconspicuously wipe her hands on her dress, refreshing. If he weren’t so hung up on the beauty aspect of the individual he was trying to snag - he’d realized that the woman in the corner had exactly what he was looking for too. She obviously has no fear of rejection, right? So, if you removed the skin deep stumbling block that sits between him and the brunette - what else is there to trip them up that isn’t there with him and the pretty gal? The concept of honesty. For the pretty gal? She accepts what she sees - because it’s what she wants to see. So clearly honesty is a non issue with her. With Johnny? He simply lacks it, while he seeks to attain what he thinks he wants in life, but the brunette has abundance of honesty - as she navigates the path of her life head on, doing what she wants to do - to hell with appearances! Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, this brings me back to growth and acceptance. Maybe my Johnny would be driven because of external reasons to be a shallow individual who wants the perfect status quo life – but hopefully, before I got through with him he’d learn, grow and accept a better truth for himself. I’m putting my money on the brunette - Yikes! Where do I sign up for the support group for: bad at bad characters?


Jami Gold said...


Geeze, and *I* get teased for psychoanalyzing my characters... LOL!

No, you're absolutely right about how our characters have to learn and grow. What I didn't make clear is that I've used my character sheets as a snapshot in time. Who they are at the beginning of the WIP story. They grow and develop along with the story, but I don't go and update their character sheet to reflect that. So, I was specifically referring to the information contained within my character sheets.

And I'm sure several people I know think I should join a support group for the way I treat my characters. :)
Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

Hey JG,

Say it isn't so! You're not a writer that treats her characters like crap, are you?

I never would have guessed. Well, maybe there were some clues lurking... have um, any of your characters come out with words like: obsessive or controlling? Or, possibly shouted, without provocation, Poindexter? Maybe you’re not being mean to them. Maybe subconsciously you feel the need to punish them. Interesting.

Murphy :D (who has almost finished her difficult scene. And believe me, when I tell you, that my characters are too exhausted to talk back. That’s why I’m nice to them. They hang with me while I drag them around all day. By the time I’m done with them they’ve walked miles and yet? They’ve never left the same freaking room! Go figure.)

Jami Gold said...


No, I don't treat my characters like crap... Punching bags, maybe, but not crap. :)

In my defense, they never complain about anything that I do to them. LOL!

Jami G.
(and if anyone knew how much I talk to my characters and they talk to me like real people - that statement above really does mean something! LOL!)

Word Verification: snesse - trying to sneeze with finesse

Riley Murphy said...

Hey JG,

This got me to thinking. (Uh, oh) No, it's not bad, I promise. You ever see the Carol Burnett show where they do the skit about the writer and the characters? The skit basically shows a writer in the wings banging on a typewriter. The characters are haloed in stage light and perform everything the writer was typing out (the audience is privy to the words). When I have days like today - that always pops in my head. Great visual, you know?
Jonathan angrily paced back and forth across the room. He grabbed Amy by her upper arms. (so, um, did he snag her as he passed by?)
Jonathan leaned down and breathed her scent, it was intoxicating. (what does that mean exactly? Is he now stumbling like he's drunk?) He pulled her close (hopefully he's stable enough on his feet to do this) and leaned down to brush a kiss across her mouth as he whispered "I love you Annie." LOL - he is drunk - her name is Amy, remember? No, I'm only kidding - but how do you do that? Think about how clumsy that is? Are his lips moving against her mouth as he talks? If he’s whispering and pressed against her lips his words are going to be muffled and how can you kiss and talk at the same time? I did love the skit. It was like virtual twister meet Simon says. Hey, wait a second...I think there’s a game in there somewhere, don’t you?

Murphy (on the last stretch and loving it!)

Jami Gold said...

Murphy said: It was like virtual twister meet Simon says.

Uh oh, that feels like a new classic Murphy-ism. LOL!

Jami G.

Unknown said...

I can't believe this. Brilliant! Thought provoking and funny. When’s the book coming out. I’m happy for you. You better let us know.

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Babs,
Book? You mean about Johnny? Ask Theresa about the release date.:)

I'm finished! Yes! YES!
Boy, usually I reserve such shouted out excitement for my boudoir and my honey. (hehehe) But seeing as how I'm sitting up and not, you know, horizontal and I’m referring to writing and not the other exciting thing :) I'll share my joy with you. Except now that I think about it? (damn, here comes that thinking again...) horizontal-vertical? *shrug* I guess it wouldn't matter to him or actually me, right? Either way would work, so... WELL, let's just say, I finished a tough writing scene and I'm celebrating! Now you're all in trouble.

Murphy :D (who knows you're really not in trouble, but she just wanted to say that to make herself feel all powerful for a moment.)

Anonymous said...

I saw that Carol Burnett skit. Good point about the visual. It was Burnett and Lyle Waggoner who played it out. Some of the comments on this line are very clever.

Whirlochre said...

This glimmering void between the inner and outer turmoil of a character's unfolding narrative is high octane plot fuel, as far as I can see, and it's useful to speculate on the whys and wherefores using astrological archetypes as a model.

I'm guessing most novelists could make a killing as fortune tellers were it not for the fact that they want to make something more tangible of their fictions than the delusions of others.

Wes said...

Dang, that's a tough assignment.

Riley Murphy said...

(Imagine an indulgent and sweet tone of voice asking this.) Wes? Where's your Johnny? :D
Signed, Murphy, who hasn't bugged you for a while. To tell you the truth , I was letting you get over your sulk about the 'Mantasy' comments...