Thursday 16 June 2011

Symbolic Interactionism: The Key to Characterization

As I'm writing Bitter Like Orange Peel, I'm really enjoying exploring the way in which people behave differently depending on who they are interacting with. And I think I'm actually learning about my own behavior as I'm writing, too. This inspired me to ask my friends on Facebook, "Why do you think people behave differently with family than they do with friends?" And I got a few very interesting responses. One of them telling me about Symbolic Interactionism.

So, before I talk about characterization, what is Symbolic Interactionism?
"The term "symbolic interaction" refers, of course, to the peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings. The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or "define" each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. Their "response" is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions. This mediation is equivalent to inserting a process of interpretation between stimulus and response in the case of human behavior." (Blumer, p. 180). (Source)
Now, I know for a fact that I behave differently around family than I do with friends and/or my spouse, but I've never really stopped to think about why. But, you see, the why is very useful ...

Let me first give you a simple scenario:
Just say the mother of, let's call her Gina, and a friend of Gina's were to visit her home (at different times), and notice a new pot plant in the corner of Gina's lounge room, and they were to suggest she put it by the window to get more sun light. Gina's instinctual response to her mother is, "I'll put it where I want to put it, thank you very much." The mother then opens her mouth to defend herself, but Gina interrupts asking if she'd like a cup of coffee to quickly move on from the issue. But her simple response to her friend is, "Hmm, that's probably a good idea." Gina then moves the plant to the window.

Now, before I continue talking about the above scenario, let me tell you that Bitter Like Orange Peel is told from the perspective of many different people, so readers will get to see characters' behavior from many different angles, which is HARD, but so so interesting and entertaining for me to write, and a nice challenge too (I'm always up for a good challenge). It also helps me to make their motivations clear because I have to ask myself, for example, Why do we perceive the mother as a cold-hearted, clinical, bitch through the daughter's eyes, but when we see the mother through her best friend's eyes, we discover how kind and generous and vulnerable she is? My point is that I need to answer such questions about my characters in order to decide on simple behaviors such as Gina's plant scenario. The answers to these questions may not be dealt with directly in my story, but they will be insinuated through behavior. And this, my friends, is what I call good characterization.

Sometimes the simplest of behaviors paint a picture worth a thousand words ...

So tell me, what do you think the plant scenario says about the relationship between Gina and her mother? Without being told their history, and perhaps using the diagram to help you, what do you think are some possible reasons for Gina's (and the mother's) reaction?


  1. Guess our reactions are based on our past history with people. Need to keep that in mind as I'm writing!

  2. I think Alex is right - past history and all the interactions that have gone before that we don't necessarily see inform the reaction. Mother/daughter relationships are the most fraught with symbolic interactionism, it would seem ;-)And, btw, thanks for the new term - love it.

  3. I also think we give ourselves more freedom to say what's on our minds to people we have closer ties with. This can be a bad thing, as in the case with Gina. If she was in a mood, frustrated from something that happened earlier in the day, for example, she might blow off that steam by snipping at her mom, where she wouldn't take that liberty with a friend.

    Very interesting stuff!

  4. Writing is complicated stuff isn't it?
    I guess there are many reasons why she would react to her mom that way from PMS to had a bad day to previous experience or maybe she is just a B herself...who knows....

  5. You're always making up characters with mom issues.

    And I think you may be too smart for me.

  6. I think their relationship is typical of most mothers/daughters. Having been through the cycle of daughter and now mother, it just seems to just continue. A great read is My Mother Myself: The Daughter's Search for Identity by Nancy Friday. It came out in the '70's when women like me couldn't get enough of these self help/self diagnose our lives books.

  7. As the saying goes "We Always Hurt The Ones We Love" is a perfect example. My son has severed all ties with me and also depriving me of seeing the grand children, why?
    .......I don'tknow, one minute all was well and now nothing apart from abusive text messages last month.


  8. Gina's reaction to her mother could have been based on their past or it could be based on Gina's desire to become independent, a grown-up.

  9. It's hard to say. Usually, when I get snippy with people, it's either because I feel like they're constantly trying to tell me what to do, or because they're not around enough to have the right to tell me what to do.

    Good luck.

    <3 Gina Blechman

  10. Yes! I love this! There are lots of different ways to describe/term "symbolic interactions"--from the psychological literature we have "social information processing" at a broad level and "attributions" (like you mention above) at a narrower level. You're absolutely right about how they influence our behavior with specific individuals--and then you have to add in the pressure/influence of the situation. Like, for example, Gina might behave differently toward her mother if others are witnessing that interaction, or if it was taking place somewhere outside of her home, etc. It would definitely be a challenge to write from multiple perspectives, as you have to keep a firm grip on the complexity--and keep it consistent. Great post, Jessica!

  11. It's always safer to vent frustrations and angst at someone like your mother because you know they'll love you anyway--that forgiveness is virtually automatic. We don't have that kind of guarantee with friends.

  12. I really like this post because I love reading books where we see characters in different lights. Great example, too!

  13. Interesting topic--certainly something uber important to keep in mind.


  14. Fascinating, and so true! I dealt with this in Monarch, too, and it was fun. :)

  15. This is interesting, and something I haven't really heard of before. Definitely valuable for characterization. I guess she is still trying to separate and prove herself to her mother? People tend to feel more judged by their parents than by friends, who they believe like them the way they are. I'd say it's automatic to rebel against your parents a little bit (for some, at least), whereas you don't feel the need to rebel against a friend.

    Sort of related, I know that if I have a bad day, I'm likely going to take it out on my husband, not my friends, because I feel safe with him and know he won't stop contacting me if I blow off a little steam with him.

    Tina @ Life is Good
    and I are joining forces in another challenge. We're going to visit and comment at each of the participants, starting with the reflections post. We hope you'll join us!

    Shannon @ The Warrior Muse

  16. Could also have something to do with the sentiment "you can't pick your family." Even when you pick your mate, you're doing so based on life "tapes" that you play over and over within your head/heart. You could be trying to fix a parent by marrying someone just like them and making it work.

    Your friends are your companions by preference; and sometimes you family and other friends do not understand the attraction but they do understand "hey, I don't have to live with them, just have fun."

    Cool scenario. Yeah, Gina sees all the history and baggage she has with her mother, and sees a building of a relationship with the friend.

    Humans are so complex; its what makes us fun to write about. In my own women's fic, I'm writing from a single POV; but I try to allow the reader to say "wait, why didn't you catch . ."

    Getting a perspective right is hard - no matter how many or few you have. Because you also have to consider the reader perspective, and hope they see your vision as the author.

    Love this post Jessica. I know I've been following you; for a long time. I fell off of so many blogs, and so they disappeared from my reader, during the great blogger crisis. I'm following again, hopefully I'll be able to "see you" again :)



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