Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Different Perceptions

Jays by Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939) Like most people, I have random and vague memories from being very small.

I remember being on an airplane at age two and being offered a Coke. I was amazed that my mother let me have one because I wasn’t allowed to have soft drinks usually (I got rambunctious after sugar or caffeine.)

I also have a very vague recollection of a little girl with several hundred Barbie dolls in an elegant hotel lobby. My grandmother and great-grandmother were there, which was unusual because they lived in another state.

I couldn’t put these snippets into any kind of mental catalog or file them away in the appropriate place, because I’d been small and picked out the pieces that seemed important to me.

When I asked my mother about these events years later, she was able to put them in context for me. But to her, the highlights of the experiences were definitely not Coca Cola and Barbie dolls. They were the flight’s destination at Sea Island, Georgia and the event we were attending at the elegant hotel. Neither of which I remembered a bit of, could describe, or even cared about.

This concept of individual observations interests me in fiction. In a mystery, it’s easy to use—different witnesses to the same event could perceive the event very differently, just because each has his own concept of what’s important. You’d get different viewpoints, colored by each person’s priorities and experiences. The sleuth tries to piece together the truth by merging the stories—and sometimes completely discounting a person’s observations as being incorrect (maybe because they’re lying about what they saw or did).

The idea is interesting in biographies. What is the truth about a person? How do we arrive at the truth? There could be twenty different biographies on Princess Diana and they might well all be different—depending on whether the information about her was given by a friend or from someone who she was at odds with in the palace. Most of us are mixes of good and bad---but if you’re writing a biography, what is your motive? What are you trying to portray—the truth? Whatever sells? Or your own romanticized idea of the person you’re writing about? I read bios with a lot of interest and a hefty amount of skepticism.

Nonfiction books on events like Vietnam? I can only imagine the range of opinions that could influence the writing of such a book. But then, if you stick only to the facts and don’t include interviews or opinions, then your book might be less interesting. I think you’d have to apply journalism principles and try to get all sides of a story…unless, again, your motives were to show only a particular side of the event.

It’s interesting in general fiction when someone finds that the truth about a person is different from what everyone has told them is the truth. Glenda of Oz directs Dorothy to a wizard she describes as great and powerful. Everyone in Oz shares the same perception of the wizard—one which isn’t accurate at all. Here you have inaccurate perceptions, deliberately given by someone who wanted the truth about himself (that he wasn’t a great wizard at all) to stay hidden.

You might have a character who ordinarily is extremely trustworthy; a person your protagonist frequently goes to for an opinion. But maybe this rock-solid individual isn’t a good person to talk to when it comes to a particular problem. Maybe their past experiences have warped them in some way to make their judgment unreliable.

We all have our own ideas on people and events, colored by our backgrounds and interests. I love seeing our differences played out in books. And working them into my own.