So the hero in my latest release has a few unlikeable traits (as in, pretty unethical and unsavoury behaviours), which would be fine in some genres, but not so much in romance. I realised that if I was going to have an online stalker who has come to some pretty dark conclusions about humanity, I needed to address this fairly early on in the book if I wanted my readers to fall in love with him alongside my heroine. Actually, if I wanted them to read past the second chapter!
I decided on the strategy I was going to use, but I began to reflect on the psychology behind Blake Snyder’s famous tactic. The tactic (which some of you would have guessed by now) we’ll discuss shortly; the science behind is the bit we’re going to delve into first, and it’s called the ‘halo effect.’
The halo effect
The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character. Essentially, your overall impression of a person (“Gosh, he’s nice!”) impacts your evaluations of that person’s specific traits (“He’s probably also smart!”). We assume that because Johnny is good at A, then he must be good at B, C, and D. Conversely, it also works the other way (called the horn effect); if Danny is bad at A, then he must be bad at B, C, and D.
Psychologist Edward Thorndike first coined the term in 1920. Thorndike asked commanding officers in the military to evaluate a variety of qualities in their soldiers. These characteristics included such things as leadership, physical appearance, intelligence, loyalty, and dependability. He found that high ratings of a particular quality correlated to high ratings of other characteristics, while negative ratings of a specific quality also led to lower ratings of other characteristics. Soldiers were far more likely to be assessed as good in all areas or bad in all areas, even when there was no obvious correlation between the traits.
So yes, first impressions count out in the real world (which means they also do in your story).
Check out these other examples of the halo effect:
- We tend to perceive celebrities as attractive and successful, meaning we also tend to see them as intelligent and funny.
- Teachers are subject to the halo effect when evaluating their students. A teacher who sees a well-behaved student might tend to assume this student is also bright, diligent, and engaged (it’s actually how I see many students slip through the cracks in our educational system).
- The halo effect can also impact how students perceive teachers. In one study, researchers found that when an instructor was viewed as warm and friendly, students also rated him as more attractive, appealing, and likable (I’m glad I made it a point to smile at my students during my teaching years!).
- In the work setting, the halo effect is most likely to show up in a supervisor’s appraisal of a subordinate. In fact, the halo effect is probably the most common bias in performance appraisal. The supervisor may give prominence to a single characteristic of the employee, such as enthusiasm, and allow the entire evaluation to be coloured by how he or she judges the employee on that one characteristic. The employee could have areas they have yet to achieve competence in, but if they show enthusiasm, the supervisor may very well give them a higher performance rating than is justified.
- Marketers take advantage of the halo effect to sell products and services. The iPod is a great example—a popular product, it functioned as a great launching pad for the iPhone.
What’s more, researchers have found that attractiveness is a factor that can be influential in the halo effect. The truth is, we tend to rate attractive people more favourably for their personality traits than those who are less attractive. Several different studies have found that when we rate people as good-looking, we also tend to believe that they have positive personality traits and that they are more intelligent. If a prospective employer views an application as attractive, they are more likely to rate the individual as intelligent, competent, and qualified (and no, that’s not fair). What’s more, one study even found that jurors were less likely to believe that attractive people were guilty of criminal behaviour (so crime writers out there—consider making your murderer attractive if you’re looking for them to get away with it).
Harnessing the halo effect in your story
Deliberate use of the halo effect can be a powerful writers tool. The idea is to create the impression you want the reader to build upon early on. If you’re looking to create a good impression, you can do this by showing your character as funny or smart, and possibly attractive. Your readers brain will extrapolate from there without even realising it. My character was certainly smart, and the reader got that sense from his hacking knowledge and sharp dialogue. And yes, he’s good looking, but he’s also significantly scarred. Capturing a romance reader in this scenario was going to be a challenge.
The literary device that I used was Save the Cat; a term coined by the late Blake Snyder—a scene relatively early in the story where the reader meets the hero and he/she does something ‘nice.’ Often it will have a heroic flavour, like oh, saving a cat. If that action has enough emotional impact, your reader will start making generalisations about the character’s other personality traits.
In my particular scene, chapter two in fact, we’re introduced to Erik, who is stalking his peers online without them knowing of his existence. What’s more, the reader realises he’s been doing this for some time, and he does not have a very high opinion of humanity. By the end of the scene he also saves one of said peers from being blackmailed by his brother.
On the other side of the coin, you have the ‘kick the dog’ scene. If you want to create a first impression of your villain, then have them commit some act of unpleasantness. If a villain is kicking a dog in chapter two, my brain is going to put two and two together and conclude this dude isn’t very nice in other areas of his life. It’s fascinating that this cognitive shortcut happens outside of my awareness will set up my expectations for the remainder of the book.
The cool bit is that this allows you, the author, to either confirm these suspicions, or blow them off the page.
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