Thursday, December 22, 2011

Character: It's All A Matter Of Perception

At this time of the year, the sun goes down late and rises early. Throughout the course of the day, only a few clouds are in the sky. The temperature is pretty warm, and there's a light breeze, and the birds are singing. It feels like summer. Overall, it feels like Christmas.

Some of my blog readers come from New Zealand and Australia - and these people are probably nodding their heads right now. Many of my blog readers, however, come from elsewhere in the world, specifically the U.S. and Canada - and these people are probably confused right now.

Because for those of you who live in the Northern Hemisphere, these things don't describe Christmas at all. In the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas is in winter, involves only a short break, cold temperatures and short days. But having grown up in the Southern Hemisphere, when I think summer, I think Christmas - and vice versa.
Allow me to change the subject momentarily. I promise, it relates. I recently read the following in Story by Robert McKee (read this book! - it's fantastic):

"Your characters, indeed all characters, in the pursuit of any desire, at any moment in story, will always take the minimum, conservative action from his point of view. All human beings always do. Humanity is fundamentally conservative, as indeed is all of nature. No organism ever expends more energy than necessary, risks anything it doesn't have to, or takes any action unless it must. Why should it? If a task can be done in an easy way without risk of loss or pain, or the expenditure of energy, why would any creature do the more difficult, dangerous, or enervating thing?"

At first, this might seem untrue. My Dad asked me why, if McKee's words are true, I try hard at school. Why don't I just go for the bare minimum, rather than putting a good amount of effort into my work? The answer to this question lies in the words, "from his point of view". McKee explains:

"In life we often see people, even animals, acting with extreme behavior that seems unnecessary, if not stupid. But this is our objective view of their situation. Subjectively, from within the experience of the creature, this apparently intemperate action was minimal, conservative and necessary. What's thought 'conservative,' after all, is always relative to point of view."

My efforts at school are conservative relative to my desires and my previous experience. For example, I put in sometimes great amounts of time and effort because I feel that this action will be necessary to secure me the high grade I want. Conservative, based on my desire. I also know that if I don't put in the effort, I could fail. Yet, in subjects I don't find interesting, in which I have a much easier (self-imposed) goal, conservative action means doing enough to get the pass grade. Anything more than that would be a bonus.

So, just like how I perceive Christmas differently from those of you who live in the Northern Hemisphere due to my upbringing and experiences, your characters will view what is conservative differently, based on their upbringings, experiences, and desires. And therefore, the same situation would entail two different (but minimalist) reactions from two different characters.

And this is the first thing to remember while considering what actions your characters will take.


  1. I love your post, because it made me think about the world from my dogs' (all four of them) point of view. I never had thought about their difference in perception, but each of them have very different characters, and definitely view the world differently. Our perceptions definitely make our world, and it's a small step for it to make our character's worlds, too! Merry Christmas in summer time from a winter time person!

  2. Great post! I've never really thought of that and I think perception is a great tool that you can use (especially with multiple POVs).

  3. Neat concept, and I a point. The difference is that humans vary on what they think is conservative. For instance, is it easier to go through the effort to set up an elaborate way to cheat on a test in school or to simply spend a couple hours at home studying? Humans sometimes act in very strange ways:)

    Also, Merry Christmas!

  4. Lara: I always wonder what the world would be like from someone else's perspective. And I guess that's what I do in writing as well! Different perspectives make the world interesting :) Merry Christmas to you!

    Thanks Brittany :) I never realised how important it is until recently - but you characters' perception will shape your entire story.

    Mark: Exactly - they do. I think the point is that different people will think of different things as conservative based on their desires and outside pressures. Often we think that other people are being far from conservative - but to that person, their actions are actually quite necessary. Anyway, Merry Christmas!


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