Writerly Rant #25
by Mikael Carlson, Author. ~
Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and being in Manhattan for the day, it was prime time for people-watching as they returned from the parade down 5th Avenue. I noticed everyone was dressed for the occasion as I made my way through Grand Central Terminal. Too many of them unloaded whatever was in their wallets to buy trinkets, headbands, hats, and necklaces from one of the many street vendors who must have cleaned up financially. Many of the revelers who watched the parade had already been drinking, and as a deterrent, the NYPD were mobilized in numbers usually reserved for third world police states.
On the way up the ramp leading to the 42nd Street exit on the southwest corner, I witnessed a heated verbal altercation between two guys. Dressed head-to-toe in green, bedazzled in various plastic emerald shamrock necklaces, and clearly inebriated at, ahem, one thirty in the afternoon, the scene was set for a ruction. Just as I reached the doors leading to the street, I saw the fist fly. It was not reminiscent of something Rocky Balboa let loose on Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, but the hard right landed squarely on the jaw of his target. What better way to celebrate the Irish culture than with a good brawl?
Only it never materialized. Instead of fighting back, the boy-man stood there and whined for the police to come. Um, wait, what? I literally thought he was going to burst into tears. A guy who is dressed in every imaginable Irish symbol, and drinking like an Irishman, can’t be bothered to fight like one when the time comes? Now, I realize we are in the United States, but if you are going to look the part, you should probably act the part. I walked away dumfounded. While violence is not always a solution, how do you celebrate Irish culture and not do anything when a guy pops you in the head with his fist?
I am stereotyping on purpose. Not all Irish drink or fight, and it’s foolish to think they do. However, when an author writes a character, readers will bring their natural perceptions and apply them to the novel. If a guy is described in a fictional story as a traditional Irishman, and he turns out to be a tea-totaling pacifist, an author will have a hard time getting readers to connect with the character. The same applies to other occupations: detectives are supposed to be jaded, military men tough, nurses compassionate, and politicians shady. If a character is introduced as something other than the perception, such as an honest politician, compassionate detective, or jaded nurse, then some serious back story and character development is going to be necessary to overcome reader perceptions.
My point is not to play to the stereotype, but acknowledge they exist. We all have perceptions of other cultures, races, genders, religions, and occupations. Right or wrong, we carry those with us everywhere, and while society has made strides to overcome these stereotypes, they will never completely be erased. Authors have to understand how readers will perceive their characters, and if a disparity exists, a reasonable explanation has to be offered as to why. Compassionate detectives and honest politicians do exist, but the believability will be questioned if something profound is not offered as an explanation.
This afternoon, the altercation outside of Grand Central never materialized. I wanted the faux Notre Dame mascots to start a row, and for shillelagh law to rage in the street, but I left disappointed instead. It all turned out okay, though. I’m half Irish by ancestry, so I went home and drowned my sorrows in a couple of pints of Guinness. Erin Go Bragh!
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Mikael Carlson is the author of the political fiction novels The iCandidate and The iCongressman. He is an eighteen-year veteran of the armed forces, served as a U.S. Army Paratrooper, and earned a Master of Arts in American History. Mikael currently lives in Connecticut.