Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Cultural Tags

When I was a child, my family watched a lot of western movies. My dad liked them. Us kids liked them and Hollywood liked to make them. Western were fun. Who didn’t like a good chase on horseback, a couple of fist fights, and the penultimate gun battle between the good guys and bad guys on the dusty streets of some desert town.

And it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys because the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys black hats. It was such a common meme that “black hat” became a synonym for bad guy (or girl).

I’m thinking of this because I just finished re-reading a Dennis Lehane novel featuring his detective partners Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. (darkness, take my hand is the title if you’re interested.) It’s an intriguing story by a master storyteller and his characters are breathtakingly real and unique. And one of those characters, Angela Gennaro the female lead if you will, smokes. She smokes cigarettes.

It struck me as I read this that in most media now, the good guys, the white hats don’t smoke anymore. On television, no one smokes anymore, period. But even in the movies (who have a lot more freedom with characterization and subject matter) the good guys hardly ever light up a Marlboro or Camel. If they smoke at all, it’s an expensive Cuban cigar for a special occasion.

Has cigarette smoking become the new cultural tag for the bad guys? Are cigarettes, in fiction anyway, the new black hat?

I would say yes, absolutely. It does what all tags are supposed to do. It is a symbol to show how the reader is supposed to view the character.

It wasn’t always this way. Pick up any old Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner and nearly everybody smokes and is expected to smoke. When a new client enters Perry’s office, he usually offers them a cigarette the same way we would offer a guest a cup of coffee now. But the times have changed since Perry’s heyday.

Smoking is frowned upon now in American society. At least, as my grandmother would say, in polite society. Drink as much single malt scotch as you want, but go outside to light up that Camel.

There are other “cultural tags” out there, now that I find myself paying attention to them and they, too, have changed. Read almost any American novel written before the late fifties and one finds oneself cringing at the racial terms and prejudices voiced as simply casual conversation. Today, the only person to use such terms is a radical racist.

Another example of the changeability of cultural tags is tattooing. When I was young, the only people who sported tattoos—particularly on visible parts of their body, like their arms—were hardcore bikers and prison convicts. Now virtually every young person, regardless of gender has a tattoo. Often they have multiple tattoos.

The tag of having your character sporting full sleeves of tattoos in 1975 indicated the person was an outlaw, prone to violence, and possibly not to be trusted. Now, it means they are trendy.

So what does all this mean to the writer?

First of all, the writer must be aware of these tags and how the society as a whole relates to them. One of the writer’s most important jobs is to observe the world around her. It’s the only way to be able to authentically recreate it in your writer.

Second, the writer must be aware of its usefulness as a tool for characterization. Want to tag the new character as a bad guy? Show him smoking. Want him to be a hardcore bad guy? Show him chain smoking. It’s quick. It’s efficient. It’s easy.

It’s also dangerous. Using cultural tags risks creating stereotypes instead of characters. Everyone who smokes is not necessarily bad, or weak, or self-destructive (more than anyone else anyway). They just smoke. In the same way, everyone who doesn’t smoke isn’t necessarily good, moral, or admirable.

In other words, most real-life people involve shades of virtue and shades of vice. Some have more vice than virtue. For some it’s the other way around. And sometimes, the cultural tags really don’t mean anything at all. The guy sharing the apartment with the woman with both arms fully sleeved doesn’t have any tattoos. Is he less trendy? No. He just doesn’t like tattoos.

As writers, we need to be aware of cultural tags and know how to use them. It’s up to our artistic judgement whether and how we use them to add layers to our characterization. Just as Dennis Lehane decided to have his heroine a cigarette smoker.

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