Jilly: Memory and Mistakes

835111I had a great post planned for today – all about Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), one of the most talented composers of the Victorian era, who chose to create popular works rather than prestigious ones. The intelligentsia of the nineteenth century were outraged, but he followed his muse (as Michaeline recommended yesterday) and his clever, witty comic operas are still giving pleasure to 21st-century audiences around the world, while his critics are long-forgotten.

I’ll probably still write that post at some point, but not today. I got distracted by a very interesting book: Why We Make Mistakes, by Joseph T. Hallinan. I bought it thanks to a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago in a Lake District pub with one of my in-laws. I was ‘splaining the unpublished author’s possible paths to publication and why it can be such an endurance event, borrowing liberally from Jeanne’s summary, when we got hung up on the subject of editors. I said that whether an author was traditionally published or self-published, a good editor is a necessity because no writer can possibly pick up for themselves every plot hole, continuity error, pet word or phrase over-use, or other blooper that if left uncorrected could distract a reader from an otherwise excellent book. My BIL wasn’t convinced, and said that surely any literate, intelligent writer willing to apply themselves to their manuscript should be able to resolve these problems without the aid of a third party.

I learned at McDaniel that I can clearly see in my friends’ writing what I can’t see in my own, no matter how hard I try, but I didn’t know why, so I went looking for some popular science and found Why We Make Mistakes. According to the blurb:

In Why We Make Mistakes, journalist Joseph T. Hallinan sets out to explore the captivating science of human error—how we think, see, remember, and forget, and how this sets us up for wholly irresistible mistakes.

In his quest to understand our imperfections, Hallinan delves into psychology, neuroscience, and economics, with forays into aviation, consumer behavior, geography, football, stock picking, and more. He discovers that some of the same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patterns—but overlooking details. Which is why thirteen-year-old boys discover errors that NASA scientists miss—and why you can’t find the beer in your refrigerator.

I found some great information about the things I was curious about, like: we see what we expect to see. So when we’re combing a manuscript looking for the errors, a few needles in the haystack, our brains have a threshold amount of time they will look for something before giving up. When we’re searching for seldom-seen items, we tend to speed up and miss them, because we’re hard-wired to bail out early when our target is unlikely to be there.

I also found some stuff that took me completely by surprise and that could be incredibly helpful to me as a writer. Frex, there are novels on my Kindle that I’ve read but can’t remember a thing about. I’d love to figure out how to avoid falling in to the same trap, so imagine my excitement when I read a section entitled ‘Making Faces More Memorable.’

First up:

“Most people, when asked how it is they recognize someone, will almost invariably identify some physical feature…what do you look for? Many studies have sought to answer this question. The most consistent finding among them is that the single most important feature is…hair. Which is an interesting choice given that hair, of all our physical features, is the one most easily altered.”

Even more interestingly, though, researchers found that:

“when faces are judged not by their surface details but for deeper emotional traits – like honesty or likeability – the faces are subsequently better recognized than faces judged for physical features like hair or eyes. Why should traits be more memorable than features? Traits appear to require the brain to engage in a greater depth of processing; it takes more work to figure out whether someone has an honest face than it does to determine, say, whether he’s got curly hair. And that greater effort makes the face stick in the memory.”

That got me thinking: if I want to help my reader to visualize my characters, I can’t do better than to start by describing their hair, but if I want to make them memorable, I should start by having another character assess their features and make some emotional judgments. I’ve done that sometimes in the past and liked the effect without understanding why. I’ll be more aware of it in future.

I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the useful stuff in Why We Make Mistakes. If I find more golden nuggets (and I expect to!), I’ll share next Sunday.

What did you learn this week?

10 thoughts on “Jilly: Memory and Mistakes

  1. That hair thing has astounding implications. A lot of us are balanced between needing more description, and not wanting to overwhelm the reader (or worse, dictate to their imaginations down to the last detail).

    Today I was reading a little amateur fiction on a website that has feedback, and one of the complaints was, “What color hair does she have?” And I rolled my eyes — what did it matter, I thought?

    But, that one detail can tell a lot — race. Sunburnability. Temper (possibly — it seems like all redheads are supposed to have hot tempers when they get their danders up). Sometimes wealth. Certainly self-esteem. Sometimes age.

    (-: I don’t think I’ve ever described Bunny’s hair, but I’ve made some dire attempts to sketch her, and it’s always up in a Gibson Girl, but slightly gone mad with tendrils escaping like a mad scientist or a Medusa unbound.

    Something I’m going to need to think about.
    (-: And whenever you write about G&S, I’m ready to read. I JUST discovered “I’ve Got A Little List” this year when I was trying to remember the Modern Major General ditty. And that led to “A Wand’ring Minstrel, I” — pleasant earbugs all spring!

    • I love the idea of Bunny with a Gibson Girl gone Medusa, Michaeline. I think you should definitely describe it. I’m not sure how I’d interpret that, but I’m very sure I’d read on to find out who this girl is.

      If you enjoy the Mikado, you might look out for the 2011 (?) Opera Australia version. It might be on Youtube, definitely available via satellite tv and on dvd. It’s something a little different but a lot of fun, and we really enjoyed it. More earbugs!

      • OMG!! Yes, that Opera Australia version is what I saw, I think. The guy with the Little List was also on Avenue Q (which is something my daughter went slightly batty over; I had no clue). Very, very funny. I think I watched about six different versions of the list song . . . .

  2. I’d say this! I always hear that it’s a cliche to describe hair and eyes for your characters, but it sounds like we choose hair because it’s what people visualize easily. (There’s a reason cliches become cliches.)

    As far as making judgments about character based on physical details of someone’s appearance–how do you do that without falling into cliche? Thin-lipped always equals cruel and selfish in novels; eyes too close together represents untrustworthiness; a weak chin means weak-willed.

    You made me curious, so I Googled the question and found this article on what your body says about you. http://www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/health/the-secrets-your-body-reveals-about-you-775484.

    Interestingly, it mentions that studies show red-heads have a lower pain threshold than people with other hair colors. Maybe that’s why their so quick-tempered!

    • Very fun link, Jeanne, thanks! I think making judgments about character based on appearance could be interpreting someone’s facial expression or body language, or even whether their face at rest looks friendly or cruel. Also physical details that give a clue to what kind of person someone is – whether a woman is high-maintenance (salon hair, false nails) or not (short hair, no make-up, comfortable shoes). Whether a man has a tan line where his wedding ring used to be. Or a tattoo. Something that makes us engage with and focus on the person themselves.

      • I like knowing what the character looks like, but not too much detail. I’m okay with “brown hair vaguely resembling —– ” (name of an easily recognized celebrity), just so I have an idea and then I visualize the person myself. I’m more involved in a story that way, I think.

  3. I’ve recently discovered that people’s first impression of an individual is HUGELY determined by that person’s hair, even more so than I had previously thought. I’ve always worn my hair medium-long, pulled back in a clip at the base of my neck in warm weather and in a half-up the rest of the time. People’s first reaction to me was usually, “She’s sweet.” Which was totally wrong, but that was what my hair said to them and that impression was virtually unshakable.

    When I started being treated for cancer last fall, my hair became a problem. It would get caught in medical equipment, tangled in gown ties, and occasionally even cause me to have tests redone because strands of hair had interfered with the imaging. I started braiding it. This worked brilliantly- my hair was contained and it was easy to deal with at a time when I couldn’t deal with much. I braided it down the side in front so that I didn’t have an uncomfortable lump on the back of my head while lying on wretched metal tables. No one at the hospital thought anything of the braid- hey, I HAD hair. Lucky me.

    When my treatment ended my husband took me out to a nice restaurant to celebrate. Excited by the possibilities, I asked him how I should wear my hair. Much to my surprise, he had no idea why I’d been braiding my hair and thought I had just adopted a funky new style that he found incredibly hot. So- okay. A hairstyle that’s comfortable, easy, and makes my husband want to rip off my clothes. That’s a no-brainer. I wear my hair that way every day now.

    The bizarre thing is how differently everyone else reacts to my 45-year-old self in my braid. The staff at the drugstore on the corner, with whom I have been chatting and exchanging family stories for the last fifteen years, literally do not recognize me. At all. Housewives who would have chatted in line with me at the grocery store now look at me askance. Pierced and tattooed cashiers who have always given me blank stares in the past now now smile and nod at me in some sort of solidarity.

    So I have been thinking about this. It is not as though I made a drastic change- the cut is the same, it’s not like I got a mohawk or something. Why the wildly different reactions? I’ve concluded that it is precisely *because*, as your researchers pointed out Jilly, hair is the most easily altered aspect of our appearance. It is one of the main ways we tell the world who we are. Combined with our clothes, our hair signals to those we meet how we wish to be perceived. And sure, we all say that we don’t want to judge others based on their appearance, but when you see someone out in public there is nothing else to go on *but* appearance.

    This experience has made me think very carefully about my characters’ hair. It is their way of telling the other characters (and the reader) how they wish to be perceived. Furthermore, the reactions of a character to another character’s hair is an easy way to reveal values and personality traits with showing, not telling.

    • This is fascinating – horrible reason for changing your hair, but what an excellent result – an easy, comfortable and hip-looking style that your husband thinks is smokin’ hot.

      I’m sure you’re right that hair is a character’s way of telling the other characters – and the reader – how they wish to be perceived. It makes me very happy that my current heroine goes to a great deal of trouble to keep her hair exactly right for the image she has of herself – until things change 😉

    • How interesting, Jennifer!

      I recently started wearing my hair in a side ponytail where the “tail” comes over my right breast in a large sausage ringlet. It’s just been a function of 1) summer, 2) too lazy to get a haircut and 3) I could wear it up, but sometimes I’m too tired to put it up like that — my arms get shakey. It’s a lot more professional than the “down do” I’ve been wearing the last two or three years (which tends to wig out in humidity, like Hermione-at-13).

      I like it. Haven’t been paying attention to the reactions — maybe there aren’t many. Maybe I should start paying attention.

  4. Pingback: Jilly: Meaningful = Memorable | Eight Ladies Writing

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