Sometimes, it’s what you don’t say that counts the most.
That holds true in fiction, as well.
When we’re creating characters and trying to bring them to life on the page, we’re generally focused on things like character voice, motive, need, background, goals, conflict. We express those through language and syntax and action and choice. We may use descriptions and metaphors and similes and dialog to portray all of those choices.
But a lot of times, writers tend to forget to pay attention to subtext — which is “an underlying and distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation.”
In other words, whether you like it or not, your choices for your novel are going to communicate a meta message about how you see the world, or how you think your characters see the world. It’s not terribly complicated. For example, if every single female character in a book has to be rescued at some point or other, and no female ever comes up with a single usable good idea, then the writer’s meta message is that females are inferior. The writer may love women, may worship them, may do a fine joy in real life treating them as equals, so it’s isn’t necessarily always the case that they secretly dislike women or think they’re inferior, but one has to wonder. If every single male in a book is a loathsome cheating lowlife bastard who deserves his balls to be shot off and all men should just stand over in the corner and look pretty… well, it doesn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out that message, now, does it.
Those examples, however, are fairly obvious, and most people manage to avoid them. It’s the subtler ones that will destroy a book quickly–when the particular attitude of one character over an issue is prevalent in every character, or every character of a specific gender or race… that it destroys the individuality of the character and the world of the book. Because not every character should think the same, hold the same values. And I don’t just mean the obvious, the villain and the hero. (Actually, it’s pretty interesting when the villain and the hero have the same values, but just see a different approach to obtaining a goal.) The world is full of people who, in spite of the globalization of culture, in spite of the homogenization of attitudes, still have their own individual quirks and likes and dislikes, and real character springs from that.
Subtext, gone awry, can destroy the writer’s intention.
I’m going to use commercials for examples, because they’re quick, easy, and I can post the YouTube versions here.
Now here’s a fun ad by the Dodge people which accomplished their intended subtext… they wanted to accomplish an ad with very dry humor, and portray the new Dodge Charger as the fun, sexy sports car that was also powerful and affordable. This ad worked:
The subtext is, “We’re not only cool under pressure, we have a dry sense of humor, and we’re fun. When everyone else is freaking out, wasting their time, we’re going to be having the time of our lives. Drive this car and be cool with us.”
Not a bad message. Hell, it made me want to go look at the car. And even though it was addressed mostly to guys, it didn’t exclude women. That’s smart marketing.
So then, thinking they were on a roll, the Dodge people came up with this ad for the Superbowl, which failed pretty miserably. (While there are some pockets on the internet which ranked this ad favorably, I saw many many forums and national columnists poke fun, and the sneer on Twitter was practically universal.)
What they were going for was some sort of male creed, that because the male critter was willing to suffer through such torture, and do it with patience and without upsetting the female critter, the male damned well deserved something cool to drive.
The subtext, however, shot that all to pieces, and what they accomplished, instead, was to assert that their customer was the kind of guy who whined about small inconveniences, had no guts, no backbone, no charisma, no testosterone and no real life, and that the woman in his life was a bitch and owned him, lock, stock and racing stripes. But hey, he could buy a car. That he was unlikely to buy that car was also evident.
They made the potential customer see themselves as downtrodden wusses. Not exactly a clever move, there, because your goal as an ad person is to project something that your customer will identify with as what they want to be, and looky here, this product will give you that (or the illusion of you being like that).
Additionally, they alienated a huge market for their cars: women. I know lots of women who love sports cars. This ad did not make them want to buy it. For a company in the throes of a bailout, that’s really not a clever approach to increasing market share.
Dodge wasn’t the only company crashing and burning during the Super Bowl… I saw a lot of complaints over the Bud Light ads, particularly this one:
The end slogan is, “It’s the sure sign of good times,” and I guess we’re supposed to assume that because the husband (boyfriend? brother?) managed to filch a few Bud Lights, good times were had. That’s the text of the message, but the subtext is, “Men are inappropriate jerks who wouldn’t know a book if it bit them, and only idiots drink our beer. Plus, sexy smart women think they’re lame and stupid, and barely tolerate them.”
It’s not like drinking the beer made the guy sexier to any of the women there. He certainly didn’t impress them any. He didn’t surprise us at all by actually knowing something about the book. (That would have been a very nice surprise… a book club where the husband is about to take off for a ball game, hears the discussion, grabs the beer from the fridge, crashes the discussion and actually not only knows something about the book, but is intelligent and makes the party fun.)
Now here’s a commercial that addresses subtext head on and, in my opinion, succeeds. Not only do I remember the commercial, but I really want to go pick up some of that Old Spice just to see… ya know?
And this one… cracks me up:
I’m sure there’s something negative about a woman prone to violence, (and most people just said, ‘ya think?’)… but I love the subtext that she’s not going to be a victim, she’s not going to be subtle. The “Oh, shit,” expression when she realizes what she’s done makes her human and flawed and funny and I appreciated the repair shop’s attitude. (I also liked the small detail of the actor who arrives in the car just really seeming to be a sleazy two-timer–it subtly reinforces her assertions.)
So, when you’re thinking of creating your characters, think about the long term affects of the subtext. Look for patterns of repetition which could reinforce a negative stereotype you hadn’t meant to portray, or an attitude that is counter-intuitive to what you’d hoped to have the reader feel in that moment. Subtext / meta messages register, and as you can see in these 30 second videos, they register fast.
As an aside, I wanted to announce that this is the last week to sign up for Margie Lawson’s phenomenal class called EMPOWERING CHARACTERS’ EMOTIONS. Class runs from March 1st through March 31st. The class is an online class that works via a yahoogroup loop… and it’s designed for anyone, any genre, published or unpublished, because you work at your own pace and are challenged at your own level. (Trust me–Margie is beyond awesome. Her classes are routinely packed which means terrific conversation between attendees.)
This class is sponsored by PASIC, a Published Author Special Interest Chapter, but you *do not* have to be a member to attend. The sign up information is here and the deadline is February 27th. (I am the moderator.)
But for today, how about naming a TV show, commercial or movie where the subtext destroyed the intent? Or made you not enjoy the premise of the show? (For example, I know some people who just cannot get past the era of MAD MEN and the misogynistic / racist vibe.)
All commenters (save my fellow ‘Rati), will be eligible either for Margie’s class above OR a $30 gift certificate to MYSTERY LOVERS BOOKSTORE (which ships for FREE, any book you want, they can get). For international entrants, an Amazon gift card can be substituted. Contest open through Friday, midnight, CST.