Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Social Filters

 What is a social filter? A great example arose while I was researching a scene where my Pine County deputies confront a group of bikers. My research included watching an interview with the leader of a national biker gang (whose well known logo is a virtual trademark). Near the end of the interview, the biker was asked about his tattoos. "Tattoos are a social filter. If someone doesn't have a tattoo, I know that I don't need to talk to them."

That interview, from several years ago, spoke to me. I immediately reflected on my limited interaction with members of biker gangs and thought, "Gee, that tattoo social filter goes both directions. There are a lot of people who avoid tattooed bikers."

I recommended a book, written by an obscure South Dakota author, to a friend. He emailed me the next week explaining that he'd thrown the book away. "The local police chief in that book is a biker. That is implausible. I couldn't read on after that revelation."

On a similar note, one of my beta readers scolded me for a character's use of strong language in Washed Away, the second Doug Fletcher mystery. She said that if the interchange between a park ranger and a surly teen had occurred on the first page, she would've sent the manuscript back to me unread. In that book, I tried to show the teen character's contempt for the ranger (and his parents) by his use of the word f**k. That single word defined his (lack of) character and his contempt. I could've spent a page explaining, that contempt. Instead, I chose to have that teen say that word, then move on with the scene. I have since had feedback from several readers that they were unhappy with that character's language. They had social filters about the use of profanity.

We all have social filters. My mother grew up in a very small northern Minnesota town. The only person of color in her school was Native American. That poor girl, who my mother befriended, was a total outcast, a pariah. That 1940s Scandinavian community wouldn't embrace a Native American girl.

I had a very religious reader tell me she'd been on a jury. When it was revealed that the defendant had fathered several children with different women, she decided that he was such a "slime-ball" that he was guilty of whatever he'd been arrested for. Her social filter found his paternity so unacceptable that she made up her mind to vote "guilty" without hearing any evidence of the crime he'd allegedly committed.

Whether it's a farmer wearing soiled bib overalls to a restaurant, or a lawyer wearing a suit and tie to that same restaurant, I've said something about those people without going into a lengthy description of the character's values, lifestyle, and status. The readers develop a mental picture of those characters, and I move on with the plot.

I like to watch people to see their reactions to different situations. On a recent trip to a Mystery Writers of America conference in Minneapolis, I watched people step to the far side of the sidewalk avoiding a panhandler whose tattered cardboard sign said he was a disabled veteran. Couples walking to a restaurant moved aside to let a group of rowdy teens pass. A waitress in an upscale restaurant showed particular deference to a group of young businessmen in suits while virtually ignoring a young couple in t-shirts and shorts. In each of those instances, social filters defined people's response to others.

I try to engage my reader's social filters. They can be an effective device to help them engage with the characters. Whether it's a profane teenager, or an outspoken senior citizen, a bit of dialogue can help the readers like, dislike, empathize with, or even hate a character.

Check out Fatal Business to see how I engage the reader's social filters in an exchange between a farm couple and an urban "Fed", or Sergeant C.J. Jensen confronting a group of parolees. I hope your social filters engage and draw you into the plot.

Hovey, Dean - BWL Publishing Inc. (

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing on this important subject. Often we make our opinion about people we've never met on their appearance. Since childhood, I always found people from different culture and background interesting, and I often braved criticism for befriending or defending them. Traveling around the world only fueled my desire to learn more about other ways of life. I believe acceptance is necessary for a better understanding society.


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