To listen to anyone speak, the terrible ‘ism’ is the bane of our society. It is that thing that rears its head and ruins lives. To listen to the talk, you would think it was either abnormal, or exclusive only to a certain group of people. Racism and Sexism are the two most popular to attack. Ageism has been replaced by classism at the list in a close third.
Racism, Sexism and Ageism, Oh My
So what is an ism? Well it is a bias either for or against the members of a certain group. Often these are portrayed as heavily pronounced, but honestly they more often show up in a subtle manner. Overt racists will tend to hate everyone and everything within a certain racial group. More commonly though, it is something where you expect the majority of a group to display a specific behavior.
We judge isms harshly. How dare someone think that about our particular group? How very primitive of them to not allow us to show just how far we fall from the stereotype they assign to us! The angry feminist proclaims men are jerks. The upset black man (and before you wonder, not all blacks are African in direct origin, nor are they all American) tired of perceived slights, states how whites are all certain unrepeatable words. The old man applying for a spare job after retirement grumbles angrily about how the jobs all go to young people.
The Terrible Ism in Everyone
Maybe you noticed, maybe not, but each of the people so clearly facing an ism are themselves employing them. Why? Well, the simple answer is that we all have thousands of isms in our lives. It is hardwired into the species as a survival mechanism. The quickest way to organize our world is in clusters and groups. We look at what is there and figure out what we have experienced. Whatever the majority of our experience with a thing is will determine how we perceive those things.
This includes not only our direct observations, but any other input as well. Listening to the words of people we trust such as family and friends will influence our isms. We take their perceptions into ourselves to better classify the world. Once established, the terrible ism is now a filter. We are more likely to notice and remember things that confirm our belief structure and to forget or fail to observe the ones that go against it. If we meet someone who completely breaks from our ism, we assume it is an anomaly.
Use of the Ism
I could rail and rant about how we would be a lot further ahead to stop focusing on the isms of others since they so often bring up and reinforce isms of our own. I won’t though. That isn’t why I brought it up. You as a writer must always remember the terrible ism. No matter how pure your characters are, they suffer from isms. No matter how enlightened they may be, they are still close enough to the human experience that they will classify all things unknown with what they think they know. Most of their isms will be subtle, but some will be overt. Readers will notice one side of an ism more than another. If the reader sympathizes with an ism, they may even consider it a simple truth.
The character may have to face their ism or not. They may have to grow in that area or not. If the ism isn’t part of the plot, it should never be anything but a subtle aspect of their existence, but it should be there. This subtle pull on the character will lend an air of truth to a fictional being. It will be a subtle queue to our minds that there is a complex being on the page and not just a paper figure being moved along like a puppet for the sake of plot resolution. Embrace the terrible ism and use it to breath life into your work.