A friend of mine told me that she wished I had never informed her of the art of manipulation. “I can’t enjoy movies anymore,” she said. “All I think about now, when I watch TV, is how they’re manipulating me into crying, laughing, and shrieking in horror. You’ve ruined it all for me. I see the ritualistic patterns in story lines, I see the emotive expressions of the actors, and the manner in which music cues me into sad and horrific moments. I see how they’re all manipulating my emotions, now, and it’s taken away all the joy I used to have watching simple shows, and I hate you for it!
“I knew they did it. I’m not a dork!” she said, “I knew that when the sad music started up, I would be crying soon, and when the Jaws music started up, I knew someone was going to be eaten, but I never watched these productions the way you do, until you drilled it into my head, and I hate you for it!”
Every writer, in every genre and medium, has learned that the key to success lies in emotion manipulation. If you are going to care about a character that we’ve created, we’re going to have to get you to like them before any violation of their sanctity is to occur. If we’re going to get you crying over their chaos or shrieking in horror at the possibility of their demise, we’re going to have to get you identifying with them on many levels. It’s the art of manipulation.
One of the most common methods fiction writers employ, to achieve sympathy for our characters, is to divide and conquer. We employ an “us against them” mentality, and we’re always on your side. We hate these bad guys as much as you do, they are our bad guys we’re writing about, and we’re going to defeat them for 300 pages, 30 minutes, or however long it takes you to finish our production. We’re going to feed into your angst in life and get you to hate, belittle, and ostracize our bad guys with us.
You’re one of the good ones, and they’re excessively bad, manipulative, and stupid. You may laugh with appreciation when we’re done telling you how bad they are, and you may scream victoriously when we defeat them for you in our narrative. We’re the underdogs in life, and we know it.
If we write political fiction, we’ll convince you that the “other” party’s candidate is so stupid that our readers will laugh at them for not knowing the answer to overly simplified questions even you know. Even if you just graduated the fourth grade, and you attained a ‘C’ in History, you’ll know the answer to this simple question, and that will make you feel fantastic. You’ll be one of us from this point forward, and you will proudly march on through the remaining pages of our story to make fun of the guy from the other party, because that guy will be a prominent guy of their party that doesn’t even know the answer that our reader does.
If the reader experiences any confusion over how to react to the bad guys from the other party –don’t worry– we’ll teach you. We will have our characters react to this idiot in a manner that lets you know how to react to all future events that occur in our adventure. You won’t have to think in our production –don’t worry– we’ll do that for you.
Have you ever accidentally cheered on the wrong guy in a production? We’ve all done it. I did it with my nephews the other day, as a joke, and they taught me good. They politely informed me that I was cheering on the wrong guy, but I still didn’t get it, and they lost patience with me. “Well, how do you know who to cheer on?” I asked. “What if you’ve never seen the show before?”
“Look at the teeth,” my nephew responded.
Most writers know that readers don’t have the time, or the patience, to spend a lot of time trying to figure out the difference between good guys and bad guys, so we writers will give them over-simplified, jagged teeth indicators. Jagged-teeth may be an over-simplistic, and near comedic, indicators for adult fare, but we will give our readers something. Some writers will have bad guys smoke cigarettes (filled with tobacco, not canibus, canibus is something good guys smoke). We may have our bad guys express an affinity for a corporation, or some other agreed upon affiliation that is widely impugned in the modern culture, and some of us may even go so far as to have our bad guys sympathize with the Klu Klux Klan. Yes, some of us will depict our bad guys as Klan sympathizers, as a shortcut to jumping through all the normal, and required, hoops of characterization. Everyone hates the simple-minded, bad people in the Klan, so it will be easier for all of us if we depict our bad guys as Klan sympathizers. We’ll find a way to have you sympathizing with our good guy character that just happens to believe the same way we do. Some of us will take the time to properly characterize. Some of us won’t. Some of us just give our bad guys jagged teeth.