Saturday, November 12, 2011

The halo effect

First impressions matter. This idea is relevant to the people we write about, regardless of whether or not they are real.  When you first introduce a character, the words you use to describe him or her affect the way the reader perceives that character. If a character is “good,” then it is hard for readers to undo that goodness. Readers assume that characters that are good at one task, job or responsibility, are good at other tasks, jobs or responsibilities.
According to Wikipedia, the halo effect is a cognitive bias whereby the perception of one trait (i.e. a characteristic of a person or object) is influenced by the perception of another trait (or several traits) of that person or object. Judging an attractive person as smart would be an example of the halo effect. A study by Solomon Asch suggests that attractiveness is a central trait, so we presume all the other traits of an attractive person are just as attractive and sought after.
Is this the reason many protagonists are good looking? If he or she isn’t good looking, which positive qualities do you assign to that person? If you want readers to support the protagonist in your book or story, then he or she needs to have positive qualities that readers find attractive.
Writing about protagonists as outsiders can be difficult. We need to identify with their plight, and understand their inability to fit in while making them heroic in some way. Did the feature character in your novel find homes for stray kittens, or make hysterical comments about the evil boss that have readers laughing out loud? Humor may explain the success of some iconic sad sacks in books and movies.
When characters don’t have looks or humor, assigning traits like drive, empathy and perseverance may get readers to support your protagonist in his or her quest. Readers respond positively to characters who work late into the night because of a need to find a cure for a disease or fix a modern problem that plagues us.
Consider the halo effect when writing your characters. The hope is that readers will READ late into the night when they identify with those characters.

Write soon,