Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Label Maker

There are many labels in my life. There are the clothing labels I have to read when I do the laundry. There are tags on new clothes with sizes (larger ones for me unfortunately) and prices. There are ingredient labels on food products and there are mailing labels. Labels are a part of life.

Labels help us identify the things we are looking at and make decisions about them. To buy or not to buy? To try on or not to try on? To eat or not to eat? And to know or not to know?

To know or not to know? That is my question as a consumer and as a writer. I label people. A lot. I label situations. A lot. I use labels as place markers when I write. I use them to remember situations I've encountered. And I'm not the only one. Most commercial writers use labels. We have to use them to create character templates, log lines and more. We use them to sell our story ideas to potential agents and editors. Labels are a big part of our lives.

Writers aren't the only label makers. Imagine going to the movie theater without reading a blurb about the movie? That blurb is a high concept sentence or two, usually around 25 words, that labels the movie. It gives the potential viewer information about the movie so the viewer can make a decision about whether or not to go to the movie. Newsmakers use labels all the time. Though I can't speak for other countries in the world, I know that the USA newscasters use labels to describe all the major events occurring in our world. Labels like STORM OF THE CENTURY to describe weather events and more. I've watched non-writers in my country, can't speak for other countries, who called the snowfall in Virginia and NYC Winterpaloosa.

So is labeling a result of one's nationality or is it a result of wanting to narrow down one's world into easy, descriptive elements so understanding comes quickly? Who knows? I don't have the answer.

But I do confess this: I am a Labeling Junkie. I think I always have viewed the world in sound bites and quickly labeled events and people in order to file them in my creative brain for future use. Now that I am a writer I use labels to create quick descriptors for my stories, characters and settings. First I figure out my character archetypes. THE COMPLETE WRITER'S GUIDE TO HEROES AND HEROINES: SIXTEEN MASTER ARCHETYPES by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever and Sue Viders is my reference for this process. Yes, there are more than 16 ways to look at people, but as a writer it is easier to formulate my story and unravel my people if I stick to the basic types because they resonate with all people. Successful screenwriters and writers knowand use this fact every day.

Remember Gilligan's Island? The Professor, Mary Ann, Gilligan and the Skipper, too? They were basic archetypes: professor, chief, spunky kids. Ginger? A seductress. I can rattle off dozens of examples: Angel, Seinfeld, Friends to name a few. The characters had specific roles to fill and the writers knew what qualities each character had to have to fulfill each roll. A Professor archetype is going to respond to problem differently than a Chief. They might both lead, but each will bring their specific way of looking at the world into their decision making process.

Cool right?

So yes, I confess. I am a people labeler. It comes naturally to me. I may even offend some with labels, but creating place markers is as ingrained in me as doing a high kick is to a Rockette. After all, I'm a writer. I think people who don't understand the real necessity we have as writers to create labels might be afraid that we're judgmental. But that's not true. At least not for me. How a person chooses to live, where, or why isn't my issue. It's not my place to make that kind of judgment. Lord, I don't do or live the way other people do, so why impose my decisions and conclusions on others?

I don't. I am just constantly observing the world and looking for interesting story ideas and fascinating characters to incorporate into my stories. Nothing is sacred. I might see a child tugging away from her mother and a story will come to mind. Is the mother a harried working mom pulled in too many directions, or a lonely stay at home mom who just moved and is looking for a new friend? What about that older man sitting at the mall watching the people stroll by him while he drinks his takeout coffee? Why is he alone? Is he a retired, bitter man with no family because he drove them away with nothing better to do, or is he a grandfather who's actively involved with his family who is taking a break on the bench while his wife of fifty years shops for new clothes?

Oh the possibilities! This is when my writing brain kicks into gear. My mind is always whirling and trying to figure out angles about people. My labeling habit spills into my day to day life as I talk to non-writing friends. I find a label, I use it as a place marker and, like a dog with a bone, I bury it in my mind knowing I might dig it up and use it one day in a story.

I also have to use labels to pitch my own work to agents and editors. I'll be doing that in about 10 days. I have a short blurb ready, a Goal Motivation Conflict pitch prepared, and a log line printed out onto labels which are pressed to the back of my business cards. I have a title--a new one--that labels my book for the editor in way to reflect the publishing line.  And I have a label for my writing style should anyone ask me.

I also have a personal label for myself: I am a fierce, motivated writer. What about you? How do you define yourself?


Jennifer Shirk said...

I guess I'm a stubborn (or maybe tenacious?) writer. LOL

Christine said...

We have to be stubborn, er tenacious, because writing requires it of us! Thanks for dropping in, Jennifer.

Happy Writing!

KarenG said...

This was an interesting post! I never thought that much about labels but you are so right. It's how we sort things, identify characters, and all the rest. Very thought-provoking. Hmm, my own labels? I'll have to think about that one!

Christine said...

Hi KarenG-you're a fabulous writer with an amazing array of friend in the real world and in the cyber world. I'll be interested to see how often you catch yourself sorting people mentally with the labels we use as writers.

Gwen Hernandez said...

I label constantly, though I'm not sure what to call myself. I think categorizing things and people is part of survival. The ability to instantly and correctly determine whether a person, animal, or object was a threat was probably very important to humans when they still lived in caves. It's still an important skill, but one that doesn't always serve us well in a developed society.

Great post!

Christine said...

Hi Gwen: yes, I believe this instinct is very old in all of us, but in "civilized" society it is difficult to use. That's why being a writer is fun cause we get to use them!

Hmmm, we'll have to work on that label for you when I get to Nationals. I see blond, motivated writer somewhere in that label :-)