Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Problems with Perception

by Sariah S. Wilson

Prince Caspian = written by a man. It has a man's romantic ending instead of the romantic ending it should have (i.e., the ending I would have written, original source books be hanged!). But other than that it was a very good movie. I enjoyed the 20 minutes total I got to watch since I was on mommy duty with the baby who thought the best part of the movie was eating popcorn off the floor and became quite indignant when I prevented her from doing so. I did a lot of walking around outside the theater.

So, on Mother's Day we got a repeat of being served food just as we did last year. The last 15 minutes of Relief Society (which all the women were attending as the Priesthood took over all the callings so we could go to RS) we went to the gym, where there were buffet tables set up with extremely fresh fruit and all sorts of desserts. I had my eyes on the three layer chocolate cake, which was cut for me and put on my plate along with my strawberries. They had water for us to drink with and without lemons (I am a without lemons person) and they offered to carry my plate and my drink back to my seat for me. It's a little unnerving to be waited on hand and foot the way we were by all the men that were in there, but it is a wonderful experience (they even walked around to see if anyone wanted seconds or needed more to drink so that they could get it for us). If anyone's looking for a unique way to celebrate women on Mother's Day, I would suggest doing what my ward's done. It makes all the sisters sort of giddy (plus we got plantable geraniums!).

The Priesthood also makes sure to guard the doors to keep the kids out until church is officially over. Even if some manage to sneak in, they're told that the food is for the women and they're not allowed to have any of it until they get the go ahead (at which point it quickly becomes a lot like a pack of hyenas descending on a wounded zebra).

My husband came and sat with me and my mom. My mom, for some reason unknown to me, likes to get a lot of food but is able to eat only a little of it because of surgery she had years ago. (It would make sense to me to only get a few bites of food, but she doesn't do this. I think it's a psychological thing. So of course, as understanding and compassionate children, we must tease her about this.) So she had a plate of food and after her few bites, was unable to finish. She offered it to my husband, who is not a man who ever says no to food.

One of the people who'd helped to organize the event (and was still making sure that only the women were getting the food) walked past my husband, slapped him on the shoulder, and leaned in to say, "I see you're enjoying your Mother's Day." The insinuation seemed obvious - that my husband had helped himself to the food despite it not being for him.

The man had moved past us before an explanation could be offered.

My little writerly brain started to click. I thought of the possible negative opinions this person might now have about my husband. He didn't understand the situation, that my husband was eating someone else's leftovers that otherwise would have been thrown away and had been offered to him to prevent said waste. He saw what he saw, interpreted it is a certain way, and formed his opinion.

He didn't have the whole story.

But when you're writing, you, obviously, do have the whole story. You understand all the motivations. You know what all your characters are thinking because they're your characters.

So it's important to remember that when you are in your character's point of view, you have to remember their limitations, their prejudices, their perceptions, that are coloring everything they see.

I had a discussion with my editor not too long ago about my upcoming release (Servant to a King, coming out soon!). I think generally I'm a pretty easy author to work with. I'm typically not so attached to my writing that I think it can't be changed. My editor makes changes and I usually say, "That's cool."

I can really only think of one or two times when I've tried to hold on to my original idea (The Nephite Who Loved Me!) and had to significantly alter it or drop it all together.

But with the new book, there is a scene toward the end where the heroine has to make a hard decision. She believes that Ammon doesn't love her, despite what her friend tells her, and convinces herself that he couldn't possibly feel that way toward her. My editor thought I should take it out, because he thought it was pretty obvious that Ammon did have feelings for her.

I got to keep my passage when I explained the heroine's perception. Her perception was not reality. For example, I once had an experience in college where a boy I just met made me a cake because I'd been complaining about guys (it actually sort of creeped me out. He had just met me and he was making me a cake? That had some message about not being blue (in blue icing) because not all guys were bad? It probably won't surprise you that this guy was engaged to someone else about a month later). I think that's a pretty overt display of "I'm interested in you." If this situation had a gender reversal, a roommate would have told his guy friend, "That chick totally likes you." "Yeah." And that would have been the end of the conversation. But because my roommates and I were female, this event was discussed ad nauseum for hours on end as to what his true intentions were and whether he liked me or not (I remember how we used to dissect messages left from guys for their tone and trying to read between the lines and what it all truly meant. Even if all he said was, "Can I borrow your blender?"). It should have seemed obvious.

It may be obvious to the reader, who may have been inside the heads of different characters. It is certainly obvious to the writer, who knows all the ins and outs of the story. But it isn't obvious to your character. You may have an unreliable narrator whose perception alters the story completely. For the aspiring writers out there - think about your characters' perceptions and how that will affect their actions and how they feel about other characters. It's one of those things that seems obvious, but when you're the one orchestrating the entire story, sometimes it's easy to forget that your character doesn't know everything that you know.

(P.S. - I got to keep the scene.)


At 5/18/2008 1:10 AM, Blogger Stephanie Humphreys said...

Wow! I'm coming to your ward next mother's day. I keep hearing stories about all the elaborate things other wards do and wonder what's up with ours. After sacrament meeting, all the women are asked to stand up. Then the young men walked around and handed each woman a 1.5 oz bottle of lotion. (Last year it was the geranium which I tool home and proceeded to let it suffer a slow and horrible death.) Then I got to go to primary (my turn to least I didn't have to do sharing time). I'm really not complaining, but I think next year, I'm going to visit another ward.

And thanks for the reminder to get in the heads of our characters and examine how they perceive things. It's something I need to work on.

At 5/18/2008 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't it depend on what sort of dramatic effect you're aiming to achieve?

Sometimes there are things that the reader knows, but that the characters do not. The suspense you're trying to achieve is having the reader say to himself, "No, don't open that door, don't you know its a vortex to another world?"

Sometimes there are things that neither the character nor the reader know. This is the art of discovery and it is very path for the author to take, strewn as it is with problems of voice and confusion. A lot of authors use this form of "perception" thinking that the scenes or chapters leading up to the discovery are the makings of well-written suspense. They usually aren't and using this form of "perception" often dampens rather than heightens suspense and nearly always leads to some sort of confusion, page turning back and forward with the reader asking himself, "Did I miss something?"

Somtimes there are things that characters know which the reader does not. Usually backstory which a lot of writers feel like they need to reveal in huge, boring chunks. This kind of infomration works best when its a single event or fact from the past which heighten the drama of the present. Your character keeps changing her address. Unlists her phone number. Freaks out at the sound of a siren. Until, finally, the reader finds out what she's known all through the novel. She murdered a traveling salesman. I once read a World War Two Novel where in the opening the gender of the point of view character was hidden from the reader, but the dramatic point of the scene was about the character being found out as a possible aboloitionist among slave traders. The hidden gender had little or nothing to do with the fear of being found out as a women (the story was simply not about women's sufferage and the right to vote, for crying out loud, it was about slavery) to say nothing about the complications of writing a scene in the view point of a man who was really a woman and trying to keep that from the reader throughout the scene. The result was a voiceless, confusing scene. The opening lacked a strong voice because the author was trying to hide the gender of the view point character from the reader. And, since the main objective was suprising the reader with the character's here-to-fore unknown gender, the reader was given all sorts of misleading cues about what the dramatic point of the scene really should be--the dangers of being a southern abolitionist. Unless you are very careful, and somewhat experienced about hiding things from the reader which the character already knows, you will end up with lots of weakness the least of which is confusing your reader instead of drawing them into your story.

At 5/18/2008 11:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon #1, why would a WWII novel deal with abolitionists and slave traders? Was is a flashback or did you mean the Civil War?

At 5/18/2008 1:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry. It was a civil war novel written about forty years ago. I stand, once again, corrected. I really should re-read what I write. My bad. Please forgive.

At 5/18/2008 6:08 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Anon one. You know you really don't need to use a signature ever. You're the only person I know who writes the way you do. You might as well just put your name at the bottom.

Sariah, that’s the one main thing I do differently when I write from a woman's perspective than from a man's. Most women (I know not all, so I won't totally generalize) analyze far more than most men.

When a guy gets kissed in a book he's like, "Dude. I got kissed. Score." When a woman gets kissed, she immediately thinks, "What did that mean? Does he want a relationship? Do I want him to want a relationship? How was my breath? Is he going to call me? Did I kiss well?”

I can pretty much guarantee you the guy who made the mother's day comment had forgotten about it within ten minutes. We guys often tend to speak without thinking before or after. Gets us into trouble more often than not.

At 5/18/2008 6:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I call your bluff J. Scott Savage. You don't really know who I am. You only think you do.

The Invisible Author...


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