Out of the need to raise awareness about the dignity of all people came the slogan a few years back “Label Jars, Not People.” Referring to people as “the mentally ill” or “the blind” or “the homeless” marginalizes individuals and limits how they are perceived.
While I fully agree with this enlightened view, I’m appropriating the slogan for my own purpose which is to point out that labels are bad for writers, too. Why? Because they are a shorthand that robs the reader of the experience. If I write that my character suffers from “imposter syndrome,” you get the idea instantly, maybe you even personalize it, but you don’t feel it in your gut. What if I write:
“Without taking time to remove her stage make-up, Catherine sneaked out the theater’s service delivery door, but a fan accosted her: ‘You were marvelous tonight.’ Her throat tightened, and her breaths came in gasps. Hadn’t he noticed when she slipped out of character or when she slurred the word brewery? She squeaked out a barely audible “Thank you.”
Another example: Writing about a character diagnosed with bi-polar disorder? Show the reader the behavior long before revealing the diagnosis. That gives the reader a full experience, after which comes the opportunity to think, “Aha, I knew it.”
Labels come to us easily. If I call a character “cute,” I know what I have in mind (not that I can picture it, because I don’t see pictures in my head–the subject of a previous post.) Better to provide a word picture or to give the reader an idea of what other characters notice about this person.
Btw, I want to thank Stephanie Hoogstad for her recent post “Imposter Syndrome–or I’m Not a Real Writer” in her blog The Writer’s Scrap Bin. A good post that got me thinking about labels.
Your thoughts on labels? Leave a comment.
Author Ian McLean posted this on Twitter: