Saturday, August 15, 2015

Character Studies of Life Can Be Found Online

All of us have to deal with people who aren't quite...well...right in the way they deal with people. But social media makes that interpersonal issue much bigger than it used to be. For example, right now I have social relationships with hundreds of people that I have never met except online. You do too. But what do you really know about those people? Only what they have in their social media bios and what they tell you. 

As humans, we rely upon our ability to gauge another person's behavior by hearing to tone of their voice, judging their physical movements, the motion of their eyes, how they gesture, and the context in which they make comments. Online, we don't have that ability. Instead of varying areas of gray, we have either black (everything he says is a lie, or bullying, or bigoted) and white (I accept everything said to me at face value). There is no middle ground. And that, in turn, leads to extremes of human behavior online that are fascinating for a writer to observe. I mean think about it--would our society work if our day to day communication was conducted in the same way it is on the internet? 

How many times have you busted someone in a lie online? Or bullying? How about using a false account? According to Twitter, there are over 20 million of those. Think about yourself--would you interact with people face-to-face the same way you do through your keyboard? I wouldn't. I was brought up with the manners of the Deep South. It'd be real hard for me to look at an elder and say, "You, sir, are a misogynistic bigot playing the white male victim card because you are intimidated by women who are smarter than you which is pretty much the entire race of womankind, you moron."

Hard, yes. Impossible, no. I'd have to be REALLY mad though, and there are a couple of old coots online who would be able to spark that anger in me with two seconds and a gust of wind.

We live in an age where we type faster than we think. For a writer who can churn out 2000 words an hour at peak speeds, making an ass out of myself in 140 characters or less isn't even hard. 

But here's where it can get fun for a writer. Go through your Twitter feed on any given day. From data I can find, the average number of Twitter followers is 208. So take a look at those people. Check how they act online. Read their tweet wars. (No, we ALL have them. Don't lie.) What can you determine about people through their online personalities? 

Because most people project who they want you to THINK THEY ARE as a stronger, smarter, younger, better-looking version of WHO THEY REALLY ARE. 

Take a look at the folks you've caught in a lie. (We've all been caught and we've all done the catching) Ask yourself what that person's motivation was for lying in the first place. That can lead you down a strange path in and of itself, because for most folks, they're not lying to PEOPLE. They're lying to a computer, which dilutes the sense of responsibility a great deal. It's so easy to sit at your keyboard and type "29 year old redhead, green eyes, 5'10" 115 lbs" as compared to "69 year old, don't remember my original hair color so let's go with plaid, blue eyes, 5'8" 215 lbs". See? Lie without guilt. No one on the other side of that lie knows what you look like BEYOND WHAT YOU ALLOW THEM TO KNOW. So who does that lie hurt, right? 

Aside from yourself, of course. You know, when you get the tweet that tells you your online friend is in/near your hometown next week and would love to get together for lunch? 

You have two choices. Deflect, or confess. And since most people would rather die than look bad, most people would...?

Yep. Deflect. 

So when you're struggling to create a new character and make him/her credible, sometimes you don't have to go any further than your own Twitter feed. A little digging can give you new understanding of human behavior, and lead you to giving that new character depth. And it doesn't even  violate the "all characters are fictional" disclaimer at the front of every novel. Because when you get right down to it, the people we know online are ALL fictional characters to some degree or another.

But keep this in mind also. Twitter and Instagram and Facebook are filled with people who are so desperate for attention/affection/acceptance/romance/friends/justification/self-diagnoses/an audience that they are no longer real people. They're caricatures of reality, and even if you call them out you can't help them. They have no interest in doing anything other than what they are already doing, and they won't thank you for the friendly advice.

As I just learned again. Today.

See? Even an old dog like me can (re)learn new tricks. Find that balance between reality and farce, and make that social experiment work in your favor.