Friday, July 23, 2010

Pictures and First Impressions

When we discussed first impressions in my social psych class and our professor asked us for examples, a lot of people mentioned facebook - meeting their roommates and other students on facebook before school began, forming an impression, and finding that the impression was not always accurate. I got facebook right when I started college, so I didn't have this experience. And I only accept friend requests from people I know in real life. But I have often found after I've met someone that their profile doesn't match my real-life impression of them.

I can think of many reasons for this, but what's been on my mind lately is the picture issue. I've heard so many people say that someone doesn't look the same in real life as they do in their pictures, and often, that they looked better in their pictures. For the longest time I just figured that people chose attractive pictures for their profile, and maybe in real life they don't normally dress as nicely or wear so much makeup. But as I was uploading some new pictures, I realized that there is more to it than that. Even if you don't purposely try to look attractive in your profile pictures, the pictures that you take are already selective, only showing certain parts of your life. When I look through my pictures, I see special occasions: trips, dance shows, parties, beach days... all kinds of fun things that are far from what I do every day. I consider myself an introvert and I like to spend most of my time alone, so the pictures taken at social events do not reflect the majority of my real life. When you think of it that way, it's weird that we would expect people to look the same in their everyday lives as they did on those special occasions.

I mostly just take pictures when I'm traveling, and I have one close friend at home who takes a lot of pictures. So my profile is mostly travel pictures and pictures of fun times I've shared with that friend. But I don't have a lot of pictures of myself at college. If I had met college friends online first, they would have been in for a shock when we met in real life because none of the pictures they saw would have shown me in that environment, so their impression of me might be very different from who I was at college.

I was psyched last year when a student took tons of pictures from our dance show. Not only were the pictures really nice, but I finally had some pictures where I wasn't happy or psyched. My dance was serious, and even though I was acting, in a way I wasn't because the dance meant something real to me. Since all the anguished poses and expressions were clearly part of a show, it was okay to post them. Because let's face it, it's not socially acceptable to post candid pictures in which you're really unhappy. We don't take pictures on those occasions. I like my profile to match the way I feel, so I've often used icons to express negative feelings since I didn't have any pictures that matched my current emotions. The dance pictures did help a lot, though.

I guess the bottom line is that, while you can learn a lot from a picture, it is important to keep the context in mind and realize that it does not necessarily reflect the person's everyday life. Many parts of our lives are just not socially acceptable to capture and share.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Gaining Distance from Your Fictional Characters

When Michelangelo carved the Statue of David, he made it to look accurate from the ground while it was on a pedestal. If you were to stand on the same level as the sculpture, it would look disproportional. Sometimes I wonder if all art is like that: Perhaps when an artist perfects their work so that it looks right to everyone else, it will look a bit distorted to them when they stand close to it.

I have been told not to write about things that I'm too close to, and maybe this is why. Maybe the closer you are to something, the farther away you are from your audience. As much as it pained me to distort my own view of reality for the sake of making sense to other people, I kept this in mind when I began my novel. I normally use first person narration, but I had decided to use third person this time mainly because it was my first time writing something so long and I didn't want to be trapped in one person's mind. After the first few pages, I realized that the third person narration helped me to gain some distance. It was less easy for me to fall completely into my lead character Melissa's world, and I made a conscious effort to jump back and forth from her world to the real world. Her actions had to make sense not only to me, but also to the average person reading her story.

I had really slowed down my pace for the sake of doing reality checks. Melissa was driving me nuts. I mean, I couldn't stand her. I actually hated her for the longest time. I didn't dislike her as a person; I would have no problem with her if we met in real life. I just hated that I had created someone like her because she seemed so diluted, so unreal. Every word she said, every thought that crossed her mind was regulated based on my perception of other people's perceptions of what people are normally like. I couldn't let things matter to her more than they mattered to the average person. I couldn't let her coping methods be very different compared to those of the average person. And by measuring her against my perception of the average person, I really distanced her from myself.

For most of my life, my fictional characters were just that - fictional. I saw my characters as individuals, the same way I see other fictional characters.  But when I went to college and felt depressed a lot, my characters became a part of me and understood absolutely everything I felt. They had to because I said so, because they were my creations.  Perhaps I felt betrayed because Melissa wasn't going to be my kindred spirit. I had to push Melissa away from me, force her to live her own life and make her own choices.

What helped was that Melissa was the only character I had really developed before I began writing. While she was set in my mind, my other characters weren't. Unlike my short stories that focus exclusively on one person, in the novel, everyone else had a much bigger role. And since I didn't develop everyone else before starting, they developed naturally, on their own. It's weird - I've heard so many writers say that their characters take over, but I didn't think it could happen to me. I didn't think they'd do anything if I let go of them. It took a long time - about 115 pages - but it all made sense after that. It was okay to be close to my characters again since we had a built-in natural distance. Jumping in and out of their world and the real world has also begun to feel natural and less like I'm compromising the story for other people. I've reached a standing point where it doesn't look distorted to me. At least not completely.

And I have grown to love Melissa Campbell. I gave her the tools to relate to other people, and she just needed some time for those traits to develop naturally. She is less of a kindred spirit to me than other characters have been, but she is the closest character I've ever had to being realistic and relatable. She is my connection to the reader, to the world. I suppose I was jealous in the beginning, when she was closer to the reader than she was to me, but now that I'm with her, she has lead me closer than I have ever come to reaching people. I will always love her for that.