Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In writing, and most artistic endeavors, artists have the benefit of accessing and utilizing a wide range of tools. These tools can be complex and take a lot of work – like successfully folding your writing – while others – like quadrant theory – are more about understanding and refining what we already half-understand as authors. Most important of all are the tools so inherent to our art that we don’t realize we’re using them; tools that we’re definitely going to pick up, but which we risk using incorrectly if we don’t appreciate their constancy and necessity. The halo effect is one of these tools, and misusing it can damage the bedrock of your story.
Happily, we’re just about to explore exactly how to use it right, so there’s no need to worry.
What is the halo effect?
The halo effect, sometimes called the ‘horns and halo effect’, is an evolving psychological theory which suggests several interesting things about how we define the character of those around us. It was demonstrated in its most basic form by E.L. Thorndike, who found it strange that military officers tended to rate their soldiers’ qualities as either good or bad across the board. That is, that it was rare for officers to say a soldier was good in some areas, such as physique and character, and bad in others, such as intelligence and leadership – instead, they 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 categories under discussion.
The Economist summarizes this psychological tendency below, as well as expounding on further research into how people (and characters) are initially sorted into these ‘good’ and ‘bad’ groups.
[The halo effect] is the phenomenon whereby we assume that because people are good at doing A they will be good at doing B, C and D (or the reverse – because they are bad at doing A they will be bad at doing B, C and D)… Later work on the halo effect suggested that it was highly influenced by first impressions. If we see a person first in a good light, it is difficult subsequently to darken that light. The old adage that “first impressions count” seems to be true.
– ‘The Halo Effect’, The Economist
If that wasn’t enough, a further study made it clear exactly how wide-ranging the halo effect can be. Here, students were asked to rate people on twenty-seven different personality traits based on their appearance alone, including altruism, stability, trustworthiness, kindness, and even promiscuity, as well as their likely future job status and estimated lifetime happiness.
The results showed that attractive people were more likely to be seen as not only having more socially desirable personality traits, but to be seen as more likely to have happy marriages and more success in parenting. Verhulst, Lodge and Lavine extended this research in 2010, finding that attractiveness is a strong predictor of how leadership will be assigned, with 2012’s ‘Beauty and the Pollster: The Impact of Halo Effects on Perceptions of Political Knowledge and Sophistication’ suggesting this is the case even when accounting for factual knowledge of candidates. This means the halo effect isn’t just a place-filler until we get better information, but an influential factor in how we interpret that information.
Simply put, the halo effect exerts a shocking amount of influence over how we perceive others, whether we want it to or not. For authors, who toss and turn over getting the reader to form opinions about their characters, the implications are too big to ignore.
How the halo effect can improve your story
I mentioned earlier that the halo effect is a tool that’s easy to misuse, and that fact is key to getting the most out of it. The halo effect means that, unless you work hard to counteract the effect, it’s difficult to alter your reader’s first impression of a character.Your reader’s first impression of a character will influence everything that follows.Click To Tweet
This is great if you put thought into that first impression, and if it lands as you intended, but if not, you may be cementing an impression that will tarnish an entire story. There’s a long, long list of authors who wrote characters they intended to be repulsive or satirical, only to find that readers regarded them with sympathy and even affection.
The effects aren’t necessarily limited to one character, either. In advertising, it’s not uncommon for a company to release a new range that hinges on a halo product. These halo products are the most attractive to buyers, aesthetically enticing and packed with special features, but often out of the average buyer’s price range; mostly, they’re there to establish a halo for the range, ensuring that the other products, which aren’t nearly as impressive, are still judged in a positive light.
The same can be true of characters – if a reader takes against one character, they’re more likely to keep on hating them, and to judge their future actions, and the people who like them, accordingly. If your protagonist grabs themselves a pair of horns early on, it can completely alter the characterization of your story.
That’s the risk, anyway, but there’s a corresponding reward – just as the horns spread your reader’s distaste, so the halo spreads their acceptance. A character your reader decides they like, for whatever reason, is more likely to have their actions perceived in the best light. Their goals will appear more reasonable, their methods more understandable, their jokes funnier, their ruminations more profound, and once this process is started, you’ll be able to steer it. You can keep rewarding the reader’s perception, encouraging them to invest in your character in ways that improve the story.
In Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, the protagonist is venal, crude, and frequently selfish. For most of the book, his motivations and beliefs are contrasted with those of Jesus, and as you’d expect, he’s found severely wanting. Despite this, the reader likes Biff. Why? Well, characterization is complex, but a huge part of it is that he’s funny. That’s the reader’s first real impression of him, that he’s amusing and good company, and the halo spreads. By the end of the book, Biff has committed terrible crimes – crimes the reader is encouraged to perceive in both an earthly and metaphysical context – and yet the reader holds their breath over whether he’ll be okay.
This edges into a trope often called ‘protagonist-centered morality’, where the reader bases their ideas of what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ off the protagonist’s point of view. There have been a lot of articles, for example, on the actions of the dean in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. These point out that the film’s antagonist is fulfilling both his moral and legal duty by attempting to halt the protagonist’s fun. Despite this, the audience is expected to dislike the dean, and even to enjoy it when he’s karmically ‘punished’ for his misdeeds.
Used correctly, the halo effect and protagonist-centered morality can prompt readers to abandon their usual moral judgements in favor of whatever the story suggests, and have fun doing it.
Not only that, but the halo effect can be used for some diabolical means. Check out How To Make The Reader Trust Your Villain to see how the halo effect can be used to set up an amazing twist.The halo effect can make simple twists completely unexpected.Click To Tweet
Harnessing the halo effect
Used deliberately, the halo effect can hugely improve your story, so let’s talk about where to begin. The idea is to create a good impression, or at least the impression you want the reader to build on.
In terms of basic impressions, using a ‘save the cat’ or ‘kick the dog’ moment is a fantastic way to set up the halo or horns you want a character to wear. This is a technique where a character is introduced with a particular moment of heroism or villainy, establishing the reader’s regard for them as early as possible. Save That Cat! The Easy Secret To Introducing A Hero goes into more detail on this device and its subtler variants.
Another way to grab a halo for your character is to portray them as smart or funny, though the latter is more dependable. It’s easy to portray a character as smart in a way that doesn’t actually endear them to the reader, but if you can get it right, you’ll be closing in on that halo. The same is true of making a character particularly sympathetic – it can be made to work, but be careful that they don’t come off as generally needy (unless that’s how you want them to be seen). Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling manages this well – the reader meets the protagonist, Cormoran Strike, at a time of turmoil, but his concern for others and professional acumen allow him to gain the halo of sympathetic affection rather than the horns of the pitiful. To give a character horns, you can of course reverse the above.
Writing an attractive character is less simple, as readers don’t experience this in the same way as humor or intelligence. There’s the chance that readers will skip their subconscious bias towards actual attractiveness and instead exercise their subconscious resentment of the attractive (if they have it). A beautiful character is therefore unlikely to gain the same sort of halo as with other attributes, unless the author can make the reader experience some simulacrum of attraction or recognition of attractiveness at a more visceral level.
Reversing and avoiding the halo effect
Once your character has their halo or horns, there may come a point where you want to reverse the process – to reveal they’re actually bad/good, or to ask the reader to see them as more complex. First of all, remember that the halo effect has a general, elevating effect that leaves the reader well or poorly disposed towards a character. Complexity therefore isn’t too hard to segue into – you can show more layers, it’s just likely that the reader will continue giving that character the benefit of the doubt.
Twists are harder – not because the reader will refuse to believe the character is actually good/bad, but because that won’t necessarily shift their sympathies. Famous works such as Fight Club or The Great Gatsby are often at the center of disagreements about whether fans have become lost in idolizing ultimately antagonistic forces, whether that’s Tyler Durden’s charismatic anarchist or the raucous nightlife of the idle rich (that’s right – the halo effect can apply to settings, too).
It’s usually advisable to have a haloed antagonist really cross the line, shaking the reader’s affection loose, or else have them backtrack on some of the moments that made the reader like them in the first place. This has the effect of presenting the haloed persona as a performance, allowing the reader to separate their affection from what’s effectively a newly revealed character.
As with anything, this can backfire – in New X-Men, Grant Morrison created Xorn; a wise, peaceful character later revealed to be the cover identity of a fascistic terrorist. Xorn quickly became a beloved character, and his loss was felt so extensively that later writers revised the character, creating a web of explanations and contradictions to fully establish him as a separate person (including that most hackneyed of devices, the identical brother). It’s an extreme case, but make sure that your reversal is worth the effort; if you create a character that readers desperately want to keep, maybe the best version of the story keeps them around.
Avoiding the halo effect is far more difficult, especially with main characters, since your reader is looking to make their mind up either way. It’s almost unavoidable that, if you follow a single character, the reader will be biased towards them. After all, they have to be good enough company to carry the book, which is often all it takes, and narrative structure suggests they should start off at their most approachable. The protagonists of Irvine Welsh’s Filth and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita take this to extremes, but even as they’re revealed as monsters, there are still readers who can’t stop finding ways to root for them.When the halo effect goes wrong, it can turn unrepentant monsters into pop-culture icons.Click To Tweet
This can be complicated, but to dodge it completely, you’ll probably want more protagonists to offer the reader alternate viewpoints. You can also complicate first impressions and offer differing opinions quickly and convincingly. If you don’t want the reader to fit a main character for horns or a halo, have some other characters may conflicting but convincing arguments about their nature. As ever, though, it’s a balancing act; you don’t want the reader to feel like they can’t get a grip on a character. The best bet is usually to front-load their complexity. Give the reader something to really chew on and hope that it stops them seeing the character in a simplistic light. In the opening scene of Tyrannosaur, the protagonist drunkenly but deliberately kicks his dog and then mournfully carries it home. Tenderness and violence are interwoven, and the viewer finds themselves fascinated but unable to fit the character into simple binaries.
The process is easier for secondary characters, as they don’t have to ingratiate themselves with the reader so quickly. Here, it’s possible to take your time, throw in a few different viewpoints, and tease out complexity.
Polish your halo
The halo effect isn’t the only thing that influences how your reader feels about your characters, but it’s an important lens through which a lot of your other techniques will be viewed. If you want to work against it, that is possible, but it’ll take consciously assessing your early story and knowing where to look. If you want to use it, that’s great – it’s a powerful device that can do a lot for you and even more for your reader.
Are there any characters that you think suffer or benefit from the halo effect? Do you need to reassess your opening to ensure your reader gets the right idea? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more great tips on this subject, check out Save That Cat! The Easy Secret To Introducing A Hero and Writing Funny Characters That Actually Make People Laugh.