by Sharan Newman
I’ve enjoyed and learned from earlier posts on proper behavior for writers, in public that is. One of the great things about being a writer is that one can wear anything, eat anything and make impolite noises because there’s no one else in the room. Some of us forget that this only works if one never interacts with the rest of the world.
Now, even though the writer is locked in an ivory tower for the duration of the book. (You’re not? My family insists on it), the work in progress generally deals with people (or anthropomorphic beings). One easy way to establish class or sensibility is to show how your characters interact with others. Does a man yell at waiters and heap scorn on underlings? It will be hard to make him a hero. Does a woman stop to drop a coin in every beggar and busker’s hat? She’s either a saint or has a serious psychological problem.
For writers of historical novels, a study of accepted behaviors of the time period is essential. Going to court, slapping the queen on the back and offering her a beer had better be a scene that’s explained along with the horror or those watching. Books set in the 1920s, when morals and manners were changing rapidly, make use of good behavior or lack of it, to give scenes a sense of time and place. Writers who set their books in other cultures often use correct manners to point out cultural differences.
Upsetting the order of things is often signalled by a change in manners. Nobility in post revolutionary France (if they kept their heads) were called “citizen”, After the Russian revolution, everyone was a comrade. Royalty in disguise are faced with the discovery that everyone doesn’t treat them with deference. How they act in response to the situation shows their character and has been the basis for hundreds of works, including most of Shakespeare’s comedies. A knowledge of accepted norms of behavior can catch a killer, uncover a spy or set the stage for sharp satire.
So don’t ignore manners when writing. They are an integral part of plot and character. And, as others have mentioned here, it doesn’t hurt to pay attention to manners in real life, especially if you have to leave your nice ivory tower.