The other day someone casually mentioned to me that I was introducing my family incorrectly. This struck a chord with me that made me sit back and take a look at how I introduce people in the real world as well as how I introduce people (remember, they’re people, not characters) in my books. Hopefully some of you will agree with my take on the situation.
We met with some friends of mine and I introduced Angelica and Isabella. I said, “This is Angelica,” and then I said “This is Isabella.” What some people found odd is that I didn’t mention my relationship to the two of them during the introduction. Apparently, the polite and correct form of introduction would have been to say, “This is my wife, Angelica,” and “This is my step-daughter, Isabella.” I personally find that form of introduction offensive, and what follows is my rant detailing why.
We all know the adage that you only get once chance at a first impression and, to me, this extends to the introduction that begins this first impression. If I add some label to a person’s name as I introduce you to them, I firmly believe that your brain is going to use this label to form an arbitrary box in your mind in which to stuff this new person you just met. By me giving you a label with this new person, I have already begun to artificially limit your view of and potential respect for this new person. In every day life we are all so guilty of labeling, boxing, and prejudging people that it is imperative that we do everything we can to avoid this.
When you meet my stepdaughter, I want your mind to remain open with possibilities for how you see her. She is Isabella, and she is a unique person with a rich set of interests, abilities, flaws, quirks, and a limitless source of joy in the lives of those who meet her. If your mind registers her as Isabella first, it will take you no additional effort to expand your view of this person. On the other hand, if I give you a ready made label your mind will do what it does best – take a shortcut. It will automatically dump this person into this new label and will avoid building up the rich representation of this person because that work has already been done. She’s so-and-so‘s daughter or whatshisname’s friend, maybe you-know-who’s wife. How boring; how utterly forgettable.
Think about it. Think back to the times when you’ve been introduced to someone and, for a very long time thereafter, that person occupied no more space in your mind than a label. It took many repeated encounters with this person simply to overcome the seemingly innocent label into which he or she had been imprisoned by virtue of the “polite” and “correct” form of introduction.
Why would you create this artificial barrier? Why would you make it harder for someone to see the limitless possibilities for each amazing, wonderful, unique human being they encounter? Do you want to be Gandalf or do you want to be Bilbo’s wizard? Do you want to be Heracles or Zeus’s son? We regularly see literary situations where a character must break out of the shackles of being in someone else’s shadow. I firmly believe that by introducing people in this way, we have imprisoned them in such an artificial shadow before they even get to utter their first word. We have sabotaged their first impression.
I use this principle in my real-world social encounters as well as in my writing. I want my friends, family, and characters to be given every opportunity to make the best possible first impression. I will never introduce a character like this:
The baker’s son stepped under the low archway, cradling a basket of still-steaming biscuits with the same love and tenderness as would a mother carrying her babe.
You might like the sentence, you might even like the sentiment and you surely get some really good color as to the nature of this character – those biscuits are this guy’s kids – his pride and joy and the thing that gets him up in the morning.
However… who the heck is this guy? What’s his name? Even though we’ve provided some color and some useful information about this character, this nameless victim will forever be etched into our brain as the baker’s son.
So, to all those who wish I was more polite in the way I introduce my family, I say that it is you who are introducing people poorly, and you should have more respect for those people for whom you are facilitating a first impression.