Perception

world map

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the fact that I’m a reader and a writer, that I’m fascinated with perception, especially the ways people perceive themselves and those around them. I can’t claim to have a background in psychology, since I haven’t studied it since high school—and we all know that that does not count—but I’ve had a lifelong interest I’ve continued to cultivate on my own.

As a writer, perception is something I have to be aware of when it comes to the characters I create. Even within the same story, I have to know how the protagonist sees themselves and their enemies, and I have to know how the antagonist sees themselves and their enemies. Their inward and outward perceptions provide plot fodder, tension, and so much more to a narrative.

As a reader, it’s good to be in tune to these perceptions if you want to get the most out of what you’re reading. Especially if you’re reading about a character with a lived experience so different from your own who makes decisions you never would.

As a human being, it’s also important to acknowledge others perceptions so you can be a more sensitive individual.

Recently, a few things in my life have culminated to throw ideas of perception at me. First, these quotes from Socrates arrived in my inbox: “The nearest way to glory is to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be.” And, “The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”

Second, this exchange occurred at my day job when one of my more acerbic clients came in. We chatted while she got organized, and she told me that days before she tore a strip off someone at the Canada Revenue Agency. She followed this up with, “I don’t like to do that to anyone, but I was mad.” Honestly, I can easily see her doing this often. Even routinely. She has a very cutting personality, and she has no qualms about making her displeasure known.

You never know if people say things like this because they shouldn’t enjoy yelling at other people, when in fact they do, but they don’t want you to think they’re horrible. Or whether people don’t realize their own habits and ways of interacting with others. This perception of herself versus my perception of her are so at odds. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If she was a character, I could easily play with this aspect to add depth to my story.

Lastly, this happened, also at the day job. Just before Christmas, my co-worker, who is a wonderful person but not the most enlightened when it comes to people not raised in small town, Conservative Alberta—and those who identify with those ways—was helping one of our clients who is from the Philippines. She asked about his Christmas plans and then proceeded to ask him if he celebrates Christmas. The man is very quiet and didn’t really answer her verbally, but he did wish her a Merry Christmas as he left.

When he was gone, she commented that it must be hard for kids of other faiths to see their fellow students in school doing all their Christmas stuff with their families. Unfortunately, such narrow generalizations are a routine occurrence where I work. I have learned to just ignore them because doing otherwise is like smacking my head against a brick wall. There are comments that raise my hackles and I have to interject. This was not one of those comments.

All I could think as I gritted my teeth in exasperation was, “People of other faiths actually have celebrations of their own that are just as culturally significant to them as Christmas is to spoiled white kids.” I couldn’t stop myself from pointing out to her that a large part of the Filipino demographic is catholic, which means they celebrate Christmas. That elicited an, “I didn’t know that.” I bit my tongue against my caustic reply.

This example illustrates Christian privilege as well as the western perception that people who don’t celebrate Christmas are missing out on something fundamental. This lack of cultural knowledge, or even sensitivity, drives me nuts. When you know nothing about how other people live and experience life, perhaps you should keep your mouth shut and not make snap generalizations.

In any case, as riled up as it can sometimes make me, it’s important to know that other people don’t perceive the world as I perceive it. And that’s not always a negative. Even here, I said Christmas is only significant to spoiled white kids, which is not true. I know that’s not true. But my own issues with the holiday sometimes allow me to forget that and I’ll perceive it in such an ugly light.

Perception speaks to so much about our society and social makeup. There are so many endless possibilities when it comes to exploring it whether for science, fiction, or entertainment.

What’s your best story about someone else’s perception of themselves or someone/something else?

How I People My Stories

Any writer out there who has shared their work can tell you that they field two questions the most of any others asked. One, where do you get your inspiration? Two, do you put people you know in your stories?

My answer to question one is glib and simple: everywhere. The ‘What if…’ that is the genesis to any story can be sparked by anything. Anything. Sometimes at the most inconvenient moments.

Question two is far more fun to field, particularly because I have to think about it.

mirror by Paul Keller via Flickr

mirror by Paul Keller via Flickr

I would never consider myself a narcissist, I just don’t like myself enough to be obsessed with me (sorry self), but I do put myself in my stories. Sometimes on purpose, other times it’s kind of a surprise when I go back and read them. It’s important to write what you know, so I try to write from emotional places I know when I can. Writing has always been part catharsis for me, and sharing an emotional problem with a character and then writing them out of it/showing them learning how to live with it, is healing for me.

Not all of my characters share my anxieties and fears, or all of my anxieties and fears. You can’t force personality aspects on characters that are unnatural for them. Neither do I put my characters in my exact shoes and have them live my life experiences. I would hate for someone to read this and then read a story I’ve written where something truly horrific happened to a character and think that that’s me incognito. I am not my characters, my characters are not me. We might share a few characteristics, but that’s as far as the connections should go.

As far as people other than me, I don’t consciously or intentionally put them in my stories. I know new authors always go through moments of terror about a certain person reading their work and then accusing them of putting them in their story. I’ve never had that fear. But then I haven’t written or shared a ton of writing.

I don’t see people I know in my writing. Perhaps I’ve riffed off traits I admire in people I know, but I’ve never done it specifically. I’m wondering if I may have a tendency to do the opposite, to take people I know and disguise them. I really don’t know. I’m going to have to wait for an accusation.

I like to write characters who are willing to do things I’d never consider attempting. It’s a way to do the outrageous safely.

Regardless, I am no Steinbeck or Munro. I’m not writing out my life story in a mirror town in order to veil my autobiography. If I wrote those books they would be very boring. I would be very bored writing them. They’d most likely devolve into far more interesting odes devoted to my cats.

Now, if I could go live the lives of the characters I write….I don’t know if I’d be excited or petrified. I like indoor plumbing and creature comforts far too much to go trekking off with the women I populate my work with. Honestly, they’d probably ditch me at the beginning of the adventure. For my own good.

Abandoned Gas Station On The National Road In Ohio by Mark Spearman via Flickr. This is the kind of place they'd leave me. Though why we'd be in Ohio...

Abandoned Gas Station On The National Road In Ohio by Mark Spearman via Flickr. This is the kind of place they’d leave me. Though why we’d be in Ohio…