The Way We Never Were
by Stephanie Coontz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s a challenge as a writer to build believable characters. Your readers must relate to them, grow to understand them, maybe even empathize with. That requires a cautious mix of reality (unless you’re writing fantasy, readers demand characters, setting and plots that could happen) and fiction (a world that could be theirs if only). Together, these two ingredients build a story that readers can get lost in.
What if those reader memories (the ‘fact’ in this scenario) are false? That’s what writers face in setting their stories in post WWII, when “all the women are strong, men good looking, and children above average”. Because none of that is true. Yet, this type of false memory is so pervasive, it’s been christened the Lake Wobegon effect. It afflicts everyone from CEOs to college students to parents. The effect is closely related to the Confirmation bias, a tendency to search for, interpret or remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
So the question is: Should your characters behave in a manner that matches people’s memories or as life was?
Here are some examples, from Stephanie Coontz’s book, The Way We Never Were:
The Ozzie and Harriet Family
That loving nurturing family where Dad always had a job and Mom never had to. Where the 2.2 kids went to school without question, never dropped out, did their homework and helped with chores. Where was I?
My Mother Was a Saint
Mom was always patient, wise, with eyes in the back of her head and time for kids and dad whenever they needed her. She was brilliant despite not going to college and rarely leaving the house to go to the gym, take an evening class, hold down a parttime job, those places where moms get to talk to adults. She cooked, cleaned, gardened, helped with projects, PTA’d, ironed, entertained friends. All with a calm equanimity that taught her children that every girl could be SuperMom.
We Always Stood on Our Own Two feet
No one was on welfare. Everyone’s family took care of themselves and those around them. Kids got paper routes to buy their extras and Dads got raises just in the nick of time.
We Never Did That
- talked back to our parents or teachers
- did drugs or alcohol
- parents never argued in front of kids
- families always had heart-warming reunions
- The other guy always got laid off and lost his job
- Big Business was kind and generous to its employees