Charming characters can’t be trusted

800px-2445_-_Milano_-_Università_statale_-_Adolfo_Wildt_(1868-1931)_-_Sant'Ambrogio_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto,_22-Feb--2008The character with charm, with the twinkle in the eye, who speaks noble words with the perfect voice, who makes the impassioned plea to turn the crowd around– the character with all the traits of charisma that we desire—that character doesn’t fare so well in fiction.

Historically charismatic leaders don’t have a long life span. Authors often reflects that reality.  In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar the charismatic Marc Antony has the well-known and often the quoted (and parodied) speech at Caesar’s funeral.  As a close friend of Caesar, he is permitted to speak at the funeral on the basis that he will not blame the  conspirators who assassinated Caesar.  But, Anthony displays the skill of his golden tongue. With just the right amount of sarcasm and emotional appeal, he begins to praise Caesar, and cast suspicion on the conspirators, until the people rise in rage to hunt down these men.

It would only seem natural that Antony would take his place as the leader after avenging  the death of his ally ,Caesar. However, history has shown that in the end he lost his life running from another member of the ruling triumvirate, named Octavius. Once a person is known for his charm, he cannot simply be pushed out of office. He must be destroyed.

Purely fictional characters that are charismatic also don’t have a good reputation. In Alan Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country, the main character, Stephen Kumalo, goes to visit his brother, who now has a reputation as a political activist.  John Kumalo has a deep commanding voice, that can draw in an audience and send them out fighting for their rights.  He has a passion to free blacks from injustices, such as separation from families to working in mines in which the white people make the huge profits. But John has a cowardly streak, as he speaks to gain attention more than he speaks to gain justice for his countryman. He is not brave enough to ruffle the feathers of the authorities when it comes time to call for action.

Why does the charismatic person seem to have great promise in real life but not in fiction? The first problem is that as much as we are drawn to those kinds of traits, such a person is suspect, simply too good to be true, when found in a novel. The trope of a smooth-tongued politician whose secret desire is to become another Hitler has been used a few too many times. There is also the possibility that authors are a bit jealous of personalities that appear larger than life in public. Their skill is in the written word, not in persuasive speaking. So, the best revenge is to turn the bold, charismatic character into a self-indulgent tyrant.

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Literary devices and charisma

How lessons from English class can help you be more charismatic…

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“Edwin Escobar Luz” by Herbert Rouge – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Most people determine a leader’s charisma using nonverbal characteristics, such as conveying emotional states, demonstrating passions through gestures and compelling use of vocal intonation. But charismatic leaders still have to have some to content their speeches. The goal of charisma, after all is to inspire people to act on your words.  However, be careful to keep your message simple and not say too much. The more complex the speech is, the more the listeners have to use of higher level thinking, and the less inspired they will be by the speaker. So what techniques do you use to fill in the words if you only have one simple point to make?

Start by collecting stories and anecdotes that convey the idea of your point. During one of the typically boring college dinner…

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Creativity and Charisma

Charisma and creativity–what is the connection?

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DSCN0565c.jpgLook though recent articles on leadership and you will find that creativity to be in high demand. IBM’s Institute for Business Value conducted a survey of 1,500 chief executives and discovered that creativity had risen to top as the most valuable attribute of a leader. The ability to generate new idea, and solve problems creatively has become the new competency that is supposed to ensure the success of a business in tight economic times. [1]

But you cannot keep adding to new competencies without some sacrifice.  Basically any business needs to consider which attributes, such as team player or works well with others, that they are willing do without in when they hire a creative person. Øyvind L. Martinsen of the BI Norwegian Business School recommends that “An employer would be wise to conduct a position analysis to weigh the requirements for the ability to cooperate against the need for…

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Charisma’s black eye

another side of charisma.

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black eye 2Research on charisma which shows that people who exhibit emotional expressiveness are rated the highest in charisma by others. People can be taught this very skill, and improve it by spending time delivering speeches in front of the mirror, watching their face and hand gestures, and recording their voice to improve inflection. One response was difficulty with teaching people to be charismatic, was teaching them this skill without enabling them to become like Hitler who did practiced these techniques.

With the rise of appealingly and strong but eventually destructive leaders in the twentieth century, charisma has gotten a black eye. People who want to work a crowd can become skilled in replicating facial expressions, voice and movements to convey strong feelings. They can learn to use settings to maximize their appearance of presence. And it does work; at least it worked well for one of the leaders rated as the…

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The cost of charisma

How badly do you want to have charisma?

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According to author Olivia Fox Cabane, “All forms of charisma come at a cost; what the cost is depends on the charisma style you choose.”

Charisma–that characteristic charm that allows the speaker to inspire others into action–comes from the Greek word meaning divine gift. There are very few humans who do not wish to be able to speak and have their words influence the actions of others. But, there are few who actually have the gift to do so. And, this is a good thing  because the influence of charisma has a price.

When we see a person as inspirational, we feel their status is higher than ours. This results in a suppression of our own emotion. Even when we adopt the emotion of the charismatic leader, we do so in a manner that blunts exhibiting our own feelings. 

Everyone needs to be able to suppress the show of feelings…

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Emotional control

They face of emotional intelligence may not be what you assume it is.

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colorpencil1011-cThe more emotionally intelligent one is the more ability one has to perceive, understand, and manage emotions. Not just one’s own, but other people’s also. Those who possess this kind of intelligence are more able to manipulate others, but their influence doesn’t extend to everyone equally. They most easily manipulate others who also perceive the world in an emotional manner. In other words, those people who have a deep desire to influence, also succumb to the influence of others.

On the other hand, logic-based individuals often strive to be correct and are frequently considered aloof. But this reputation for aloofness may be a result of logical people not being as vocal in our culture. You may have noticed that people who have a technical bent and tend to analyze the world around them and often have friends of a similar ilk. However, the more emotional people express feelings openly and out loud. They…

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How friendly are you?

Thoughts on attracting friends … and readers.

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Foto de verdadeiro samigos by VinimsThere is fascination that I have with psychometric tests. It seems like the creators of these assessments have faced the impossible tasks of trying to capture complex aspects of personality with a series of phrases and sentences on which subjects must rate themselves. Recently I went through the somewhat tedious tasks of assessing myself and a friend who seems to be of very different temperament on a series of personality tests. It was tedious because I did all the scoring, carefully noting which items were to be reversed and checking twice to ensure accuracy.

Not surprisingly I tended to score higher in test of conscientiousness and process orientation behavior while my friend was higher in extroversion and ability to deal with people. However, the results of one test in particular interested me, the Friendliness Scale, created by John M. Reisman. Predictably, I turned out to be far less friendly than…

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The real world of victims

chronic waste

Artwork by S.L. Listman

Fictional adolescents  that are able do anything they set their mind on tend to irritate readers with their unrealistic perfection. And, so do characters who cannot do anything to help themselves. In a reaction against the too perfect character there have been a series of stories about the victim—a young adult that is bullied, shamed, abused or otherwise ill-used who never gains the courage to confront their tormentors or even remove themselves from the situation.

Tossing a few viciousness attacks at the protagonist may gain reader empathy. And an  immediate recovery smacks of abilities beyond any expectation, so the main character needs to work hard to overcome these problems. However, the protagonist who does not make progress will be cast as a victim, and will gain little sympathy. Even in tragedies there are cycles of rising and waning hope. A narrative stuck in a state of depression weights heavily on most readers. But this has become a new trope, having an adolescent become completely disheartened as they are bombarded by bullying.

There have been an increasing number of YA novels that chronicle the downhill slope which leads to suicide. What is striking is that the victims are almost always females. Often the threat is one of social rejection and backstabbing rumors–as portrayed in Lane Davis’ I Swear– or being crushed by lies about reputation and being used by a boy as in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.

However, what is notable from these stories is that the victims of suicide are more wrapped up in social status and reputation, and making more foolish decisions than the doomed female protagonists in the classics. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Stephen Crane’s Maggie a Girl of the Streets faced a struggle to survive and greater rejection of society at large for immoral behaviors, and not just rumors about them.

It seems the backlash against the too perfect, strong female character has resulted in portrayal of a very vulnerable female, a victim who continues to be victimized, without being able to take a stand or even attempt to defend herself. In real life, it is more likely to be a victim unable to defend “himself.”

That’s right, according to a report from Johns Hopkins, adolescent males are four times more likely to die from suicide than females. It seems that authors, reluctant to show this truth rarely write about the troubled teenage boy and the predominate causes of suicide: family discord, verbal and physical abuse, and drug addiction[1] It is time to move beyond the formula for books based on sensationalized tropes–books that highlight the female adolescent taking her life to escape the weight of cyber-bullying and gossip by mean girls. Such tropes reappear due to the lure of making money for their authors, despite portraying relatively rare situations in the real world of victims.


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The appeal of the unlikable

fear06 047bIn the search to construct a likable character, amateur authors often forget that the major character needs flaws. When authors want to escape this world by imagining themselves as the person that everyone adores, this adulation occurs only within the story that they craft. Envy and distrust are the real life responses to the almost perfect person.

Some writers try to lull the reader into a favorable attitude towards the protagonist by making them naive and childlike. However, when it comes time to solve the major conflict this artless character may begins to display great skill. When a character always seems to rise to the level necessary deal with a conflict, readers will become wary. If the character does not have to work to overcome a flaw, it is not a real flaw.

These flaws cannot simply be minor idiosyncrasies, such as refusing to eat vegetables. Dislike of  spinach is a major problem only for children’s cartoons and picture books. If you are familiar Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, you will note that even picture books can a have a main character with a deeper struggle.

A pleasant, amiable, conscientious and exquisitely  resourceful protagonist is as likely to rub the reader the wrong way as an egotistical  narcissist. Some readers are bored by a character that never offends anyone. Others will despise them. The problem has to be a personal one, a negative trait that hampers the main characters—shyness, fear, anger, rigid behavior or, lack of self-control. Often, what is seen as a positive behavior, such a lively sense of humor, can morph into a cringe-worthy behavior when the main character is hard-pressed. Humor can become a flippant disregard for the serious situation of others.

The key to prevent reader alienation is making the character to be aware of their flaws. The slovenly appearing and often tipsy Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is both more  interesting and empathetic than the lovely, sweet Lucy Manet. His realization that he is not worthy of the love of a nearly perfect heroine endears him to the reader. However, negative traits must be balanced by positive ones. Carton is an individual capable of caring more deeply for others than himself.

The best drawn characters are not just two traits, but a complex personality resulting in a person that is not quite predictable. Not all readers may find the person that you have spent hours creating likable. But then, remember no one is really loved by everyone. Write a character that you feel pleases everyone, and you may end up pleasing only yourself.

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Creating a team-like atmosphere in classes

Being able to work in a team is prized–but is this a good way for students to function when receiving their education?

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football_edited-1Imagine a group of athletes from different sport that all have a  general idea about playing positions in the other sports. However, they  have little  to no idea how their skills stack up against other in their group, whom they barely know. They have never played together, and they are told “You are now a team; you decide who plays what position. This week we will play baseball, next week we’ll mix up the teams and play football.”  Most class group assignments are actually based on this model. Much of the work required is deciding how to organize the team before anyone actually gets anything done.

Encouraging students to work as teams in class has many shades of difference from getting a group of athletes to work as a team. Sports teams are formed to wage athletic “war” and win against other teams. In classes the goal is to create…

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