Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Secrets of KidLit: Guilt by Association

You’ve heard the phrase, guilt by association - the perception that someone is guilty of wrongdoing simply because their friends or family actually did do something wrong. This perception, as well as its inverse, are helpful writing tools. It shows how a character fits in to his surroundings, or conversely, shows how they don't fit in. You can use guilt of association to assign false blame to a character or to falsely imply innocence. You can even use it to hide a character’s true nature for awhile. Two classic examples of guilt by association:

In TWILIGHT by Stephenie Meyer, the perception is that the because everyone in the Cullen family are vampires, they are evil. The reality is that unlike nearly all other vampires on the planet, the Cullen family respects and protects human life.

J.K. Rowling, the perception was that Peter Pettigrew, the friend of James and Lily Potter, Sirius Black, and Remus Lupin, was a hero. This perception was strong because he was friends with these outstanding people. The reality was that Peter sold his friends out to Voldemort - which ultimately lead to each of their deaths.

A number of years ago, I realized I could use guilt by association to help establish both character and setting. It was the Fourth of July and I was sitting along Main Street, waiting for the parade to start. A young family setting up in the space beside us caught my attention. The husband was the definition of clean cut - hair perfectly trimmed, face baby smooth. He wore crisp yellow shorts with a pink belt and the pattern on his button down shirt (also crisp) was a yellow and pink plaid. He looked like he’d just walked out of a Easter photo shoot for the catalogue of an upscale clothing store. And he looked just as comfortable. As his wife directed him where to set up their chairs, and the paste behind the man’s smile started to give way, I couldn’t help but imagine the wife laying out her husband’s clothes that morning - just in the same way she must have done for her almost-matching children.

The father finished setting up and patted one of the toddler-sized chairs. “Here, sit down,” he told his daughter. The little girl took her brother’s hand and pointed to the curb where all the other kids were.

“We want to sit over there.” She turned to her mother. “Can we, Mommy?”

Can you guess the mother’s answer? Does your imagination provide ideas about what the kids were wearing? What about the mother? Just by focusing on one member of this family, the reader can make reasonably accurate guesses as to how the rest of the family looked and behaved. The reader may also have ideas about how the family operates, their values, and even the town in which they lived. That’s a lot of information via guilty by association.

And guess what? It’s inverse is even more helpful!

This is probably the most used aspect of guilty by association. It’s when you describe how a character does not fit in to their setting. Characters like Ida B., Anne Shirley, Madeline, William Beech, and Dorothy Gale. By describing how the character is different from the group, you establish some of the character’s personality traits, a part of his or her setting, the group's values, and, as a bonus, you get instant tension!

For example, I once took my kids to the pool at the same time that a girl’s sweet sixteen party going on. Every girl had long hair and wore a bikini. All but one. This girl wore a one-piece and her hair was a short pixie style. She didn't look like it bothered her, but I couldn’t help but wonder about that dynamic. Except for her, why did everyone else look the same? Did she used to look like them? Did they tease her for not wearing a bikini? Did she cut her hair one day to show independence? She was having fun just like everyone else, but I imagined that there was a tiny bit of tension there - even if no one saw it. After all, we all hate showing up to a party dressed differently than everyone else.

When you are struggling to set your character into his or her setting, consider using a guilt by association technique to strengthen your story.

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