I’ve been thinking a lot about perception lately, because I’ve had cataract surgery. What do I see before the surgery? What will I see afterward? Do I want distance vision or close-up vision? What happens with colours? Can I drive at night? What matters most to me?
When it comes to my eyes, my answer “all of it.” But even with the best eye-sight in the world, we still have blind spots in the way we perceive the world. e.g. As a woman of faith, I see a rainbow as a reminder of God’s promise to Noah. A secularist may see some pretty colours in the sky. A physicist may see an example of refractive light.
What does this have to do with writing? More than you might think. Perception and point of view are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Typically we think of point of view means whose head we are in. If we are in our heroine’s head, the story is told from her point of view. True, but not enough for compelling story-telling. How often have you heard the advice to write in “deep” point of view. That is, get deep into your character’s head and heart and soul to make her come alive to the reader. That’s where “perception” comes in. How does your character perceive events? Not just what she can see and hear and touch and smell. Perception is how she evaluates those sensory inputs. And that, of course, relates to character.
Here are some examples of perception on a single event. A woman heads off to work, but her car won’t start. How does she perceive this circumstance?
- The optimist may run for the bus, assuming that one will come along at the right time and get her to the office only a little late.
- The pessimist goes back into the house and cries, defeated before she even begins, sure she’ll be fired for being late. She’ll run out of money and miss the mortgage payments on her house and she’ll end up begging on the street with no one to help her.
- The self-made woman will open the hood and get out her toolbox. She has already learned auto mechanics for just such an event.
- The femme-fatale walks onto the street and waits for a man to come to her aid. If she’s good at her character she won’t have to wait long!
- A witch might try casting a spell. — I told you character and perception go hand-in-hand. 🙂
- A pragmatic woman might call her garage, then her boss and get on with the day without any hysterics.
These are only six possible reactions to an obstacle but they illustrate how character influences perception.
I’ve just read an old mystery by Mary Higgins Clark where a psychopath manages to perceive everything that happens as proof that the people around him are responsible for all his misfortunes and they must die. Scary stuff, but by his own perception, entirely reasonable.
Self-talk accompanies most of us most of the time. If our internal messages are negative, we take on a defeated attitude, if they are positive, we’re motivated to succeed. Athletes visualize themselves winning the race, clearing the bar and standing on the podium as they train. The positive images result in better performance.
Understanding perception can help writers keep a clear perspective on their own work. It can also help them create characters that are unique and consistent and memorable for readers.
I’ve had my cataract surgery and had a multi-focal lens implanted. It works almost as well as young eyes. I can clearly see the panorama outside my window, and the computer screen in front of me and the instructions on my eye-drop prescriptions. My “perception” of modern medicine is awe.
How do you perceive the protagonist in your book? What character trait is most attractive to you either as a writer or a reader? How does that trait influence the character’s perception of events? Please share.