I went to a wedding recently. It was a good wedding, as those kinds of things go. The couple got hitched, the bride was happy, there were no fist fights. But I’m not here to write about the wedding, just about my first impression of one of the people I met there.
I saw her and went, “60-year-old woman in a prairie dress.”
That’s it. I didn’t even have to talk to her to judge her, and judge her I did. I think that says more about me than about her.
Let me unpack that prairie dress a little bit. In the 80s, they were all the rage in South Dakota, and logically so. They looked like someone took the dresses out of Little House on the Prairie and spraypainted lace on them. Where I grew up, people deeply believe that “fancy” is just “plain” with unnecessary ornamentation on it. Prairie dresses weren’t just a fashion but a philosophy.
Even I had a prairie dress. It wasn’t so big through the shoulders as most of them were (and I took out the shoulder pads anyway). It was blue on white and had lace that at least looked like it was made out of cotton, rather than that itchy plastic-looking stuff. It wasn’t stiff fabric, it had a little swoosh to it. I liked the dress…until my eyes got sick of seeing other people’s prairie dresses. Over and over and over again, the same dresses, associated with the snobbish attitude that simpler was better–the kind of attitude that would say a crappy apple pie was better than a really great eclair, because an ee-clair is French and an apple pie was ‘Murican. Real eyerolling stuff. Eventually the fashion faded out until it was the people who had a real investment in the philosophy that were the only ones wearing it anymore.
In the 90s, I quit looking at the dress section in thrift stores, because that’s what you could find: prairie dresses. Ugly, awful brown and yellow prairie dresses that made you feel like you were five years old in church getting yelled at for not keeping your legs crossed, not an adult. I wore a lot of black in the 90s. A lot of people wore black, and got rid of their prairie dresses. C’est la vie.
So. 2013, and I see someone wearing a prairie dress. To a wedding.
It’s blue and white and pink. It has wide but not severe shoulders, and a modest amount of lace.
I see it and I judge the woman wearing it. I go, “This person will judge me and hurt me, because I’m not like her.” So, quickly, I judge her first. Apparently, all I need to know about her is that prairie dress to tell me that she’s going to do to me what others have done.
Think about that process as a writer.
When you first describe someone, you’re not–or shouldn’t be, most of the time–writing an objective description. Height, weight, hair color. Usually, you’ll be writing from your character’s POV, either in first-person POV or a tight third-person POV, and you’ll have to write their snap judgment of the person they’re looking at.
A first impression isn’t really about the person your character is looking at, but about your character. Their memories, their experiences. In my case, it’s once bitten, twice shy. I think I’m a relatively objective person, or at least able to see things from multiple perspectives, and then something like the prairie dress comes up and goes straight into some kind of primal hindbrain.
I think, really, in order to get a full sense of a character’s first impression, you may want to give the snap judgment–the “60-year-old woman in a prairie dress” version–followed be a few details to unpack that snap judgment, just like I did.
I tried for years to write descriptions of characters based on objective details. It felt artificial. “No, no, you have to write the little, telling details,” people would tell me, and stare at me like it would somehow sink into my brain if they just spoke slower, louder, and put significant pauses in the conversation. But of course trying to write those little, telling objective details felt artificial. We don’t make first impressions based on little, telling objective details. We make a first impression based on bias, prejudice, memory, and emotion. We fail to notice things that don’t fit our worldview. We stress things that tell us what we want to hear.
That I get.
It turns out the woman was nice. At least, she and my daughter liked each other, which is usually good enough for me. When Ray sees you, she sees the good in you. That’s just her. I tend not to see the goodness in people, as such; I tend to see people’s joy and pain, which is different. More subjective. Ray saw the goodness in this woman, and I saw that Ray and the woman enjoyed each other’s company, and now the dress is just a dress, mostly. I can remember what I thought about the woman, how threatened I felt when I saw her–but it seems like thoughts from another person. I have changed my mind.
She and Ray wandered along the path through the garden where the wedding was, drinking soda and talking to each other. Ray’s getting tall. I’m proud of her for seeing what I couldn’t. Lee was walking next to me as the two of them were walking away and not noticing anything else in the world.
I joked, “I’ve just been ditched by our daughter.” What I meant was, “There she goes, growing up, meeting people, not being influenced by me and my stupid prejudices.”
He looked at the two of them. I forget how he said it. It think it was something like, “Our daughter’s a cool kid.” But I think he meant something similar, too.