Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Utilizing Normal and the Abnormal in Writing

Both these words have negative connotations to them. The label of “normal” indicates that there is such a thing as “should” in cultural and personal traditions and decisions. That people who are abnormal have something wrong with them, and that, at least in America, being normal is the same as being bland.

While writing, however, normalcy is a powerful tool that can solve a whole grouping of problems once an author understands it.

In a story, “normal” is what the reader ignores. “Abnormal” indicates importance.

For example, let’s describe a bathroom:

Jack opened the door and looked inside. The room was quaint: a white toilet, a white sink, and pink tiles spanning across the floor.

What is the reader going to think is the most important aspect of that description? The pink draws attention. The atypical coloring says more about the owner of the room than anything else described. We have a good indication that not only is it not John’s house (partially because of the words “looked inside”), but it is probably a woman’s, or a woman dominated household. It gives the reader a good image that bleeds out from just the room, that allows for details of life besides just what he’s seeing.

Which leads us to the first use of abnormalcy. When the author defies some expectations, the world seems more vivid. When the author only operates within the "norm" the reader starts to remember that he is making this up on the spot.

It is also important to notice how normalcy affects image and “abstract space.”

If we were to describe a different bathroom as:

Jack went to the restroom and looked inside. There was a toilet. He stared at if for a moment before shrugging and walking in.

The important information seems to be that it was only a toilet, the importance not being placed on the object itself, but the absence of others.

If we were to say, however:

Jack went to the restroom and looked inside. There was a coffin. He stared at it for a moment before slowly shutting the door and walking away.

The important part is clearly about the object. A reader is likely to picture the rest of the room with it, but what is vital for her to know is that there, for some reason, is a coffin in the room.

Where does this come into play? How is this remotely beneificial?

It is a great tool to get readers noticing and remembering things that they might not later, which, often times, will be a problem. Subtle foreshadowing can often be forgotten, especially in the world of the novel where the reader will put a book down for days before picking it up again.

When I was in college, the university did a staging of Hamlet. Now what is important to know about Hamlet is it is big. In all forms of the word. Four hours long with a thirty person cast and settings that range from Denmark to England, it can be a beast to put on.

Of course, most people cut it down, removing the whole plot issue of Ferdinand, and cut out the third time it delivers the same piece of information.

In order to do the show, the directors double casted a hell of a lot of people, especially when the few actors were dropping out like flies anyway. This meant that when we’d see someone one minute trying to kill Hamlet, then consoling him the next. Or that might have been an actual plot point. I don’t know.

Anyway, the director had an idea. At the end where, spoiler alert, everyone is sprawled out dead, a Player (one of the actors hired by Hamlet) walks on stage, picks up the crown and puts it on his head. Which apparently makes him the king now, because that’s how crowns work.

There were many reasons why the audience didn’t get it. It was Shakespeare, for one. Half the script had been removed. Most only snuck in the back ten minutes ago to pretend they had been there the whole time. And of course, mainly, no one knew who he was supposed to be because he had played six other characters.

But, even if they had single casted the show, and they hadn’t cut the script, and the ending bit did have a logical flow, it is important to realize that this “Player” was a tall, white, brown haired man in a cast of 20 other tall, white, brown haired men.

The audience would not have remembered him from his three seconds on stage to know who he was.

This is where authors can abuse the wonders of racism, sexism, and all forms of visual stereotypes, utilizing it as a tool to maneuver a plot point.

Had he been the only black man in the cast, they would have remembered him.

Partial joking aside, this is something important to realize. Authors and filmmakers have the tendency to assign “normal” traits to their characters, with exceptions of deliberate choices, jokes, and niches being filled.

For instance, when we watch a movie, the protagonist and the guy who gives them their coffee could easily be mistaken for one another, as long as that protagonist isn’t of Gerard Butler fame. There will be few stocky, balding men, but only as the funny sidekick, rarely any random extra.

Extras, of course, need to fade into the background, so it can make sense why we wouldn’t want a “strange” looking man on the subway; it would sidetrack from the action.

Of course, part of the idea of normalcy is that it is normal to have abnormalcy in certain situations. Basic stereotypes come into play, so it is common for us to see Persian taxi drivers with no lines or motivation for the racially insensitive casting. (Allegedly insensitive. Alleged by me. Because I've never heard an Persian actor complain.) Normal is contextual, obviously, and that needs to be considered as well, which requires us to examine our more insulting thoughts. It also becomes a huge problem because “normal” for fiction and “normal” for reality is often very different.

So, when I say others have the tendency to make their characters all similar due to “normalcy,” it is, of course, a generalization that only requires a casual glance to keep in check. It is also more important in visual arts, because often a novelist can get away without describing a good portion of their characters, and it is even more important in drawing than movie making because, hey, you’re not going to find a hundred actors who look exactly as we think they should.

To reiterate, there are three ways to utilize understanding normalcy:
            1. Draw attention to something.
            2. Draw attention away from something.
            3. Create more diverse and detailed worlds.

Our brain’s efficiency is dependent on this ability to gloss over ordinary in favor of the new. It works by filtering in thousands of pieces of information, and learns to recognize what it can ignore and what it should think about. For an author who wants to manipulate feelings, deliver information, and tell a story in the best way possible, he must consider the controversial and contextual concept of what we perceive as normal.