Did you ever peel the labels off cans of food for a practical joke? No? Maybe my mind works differently than most people's. Labels are useful as a way to identify and classify things, but they can certainly cause limitations when you apply them to yourself, others, or your characters in a story. Even the good ones can draw a box around a person's definition that is very hard to escape.
"Baby Boomer" is a label I picked up and started using to define myself when I turned fifty. Up to that point I was just grumpily dealing with being "over 45". Someone gave me the book Boomer Babes: A Woman's Guide to the New Middle Ages. After reading it, I started to think of myself as someone who could simply choose not to be old, or at least not to be old in the same typical way as other women I knew. I decided that being labelled a "Boomer Babe" might be a pretty good thing.
Then I did research.
I am a huge fan of the Urban Dictionary for many reasons. One is that I sometimes teach Intro to Linguistics and find the idea of average people defining new words and terms to be fascinating. Though I do believe that the very proper Samuel Johnson, who is typically credited with creating the first dictionary, is looking down on English speakers now and shuddering over the corruption of his life's work. I know I shudder over what I learn sometimes, including the fact that there really is such a thing as "too much information".
This happened when I looked up "Baby Boomers" in the Urban Dictionary. Submissions from people I'm old enough to have given birth to are full of blame for what they feel my generation has not done well. The vitriol in the contributions made me start thinking hard about that "Baby Boomer" label, because I'd gone from my perception of it as the "free-spirited older woman" contextual meaning to the "generation that caused all the problems in the world" one .
Writers well know that words have power and that a great deal of that resides in the images created in a reader's mind about the word's meaning. "Meanings" hit the brain as instanteously as the words are read.
For example, can a "rape survivor" ever have great sex again? I tackled that subject in Carved In Stone in a slightly different way. My 47 year old heroine lectures the 53 year old hero and tells him that after thirty years of therapy, she is doing just fine. She tells him that he is the one with the problem because my hero turns down intimacy with the heroine because of the label in his head, not anything genuinely true about her. It is about Jessica's struggle to shed a label in this case and I can tell you after thirty years the frustration level is high.
Many writers use labels with contextual definitions to set up a character precisely for the purpose of putting them through the change later. If the character is labelled and described as a "nice guy" or a "good woman", a reader typically picks up the book knowing full well that the label is going to be ripped away at some point in the story.
Maybe the labels we choose in real life function the same for us. At some point in the story of our lives, they'll be ripped away. Then we're like those cans of food in my practical joke, uniform on the outside, but quite different on the inside. If all the cans in the pantry look the same, there's really only one method of discovery.
My mother was mad at me for a very, very long time.
Here are several links to where it can be purchased and downloaded (Kobo hasn't adjusted the price yet, but it should happen soon):
Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Apple (via iBooks), Sony, Kobo