As we approach the November elections and debates, both formal and informal heat up, I’ve noticed a distressing trend:
It’s easy to fall into the mindset that everyone sees the world the way you do. And those who don’t are “obviously” delusional, blind, or just plain stupid.
We all fall into this kind of trap in our daily interactions (moreso when intrinsic bias is challenged), and, since our stories and characters come from us, it’s also easy for them to follow the same pattern. I think that’s actually one reason why flat characters are so pervasive; their creator hasn’t tried looking beyond the obvious or from a different perspective. After all, each one of us is shaped by our experiences, our raising, how we interact with the world and how the world interacts with us. No two people even experience with world in the same manner…literally.
For example, I am slightly myopic. My vision is not as bad as some; I can still function without my glasses, but anything involving long distance vision such as shooting or driving becomes hazardous. Anything beyond arms’ length is slightly hazy, like I’m about to see double, but the images are just starting to blur before they separate completely. Even each eye perceives the world differently. My left eye is pretty good, but my right eye renders everything beyond two inches blurry, since it has a slight astigmatism.
I wasn’t always nearsighted. I don’t recall having any trouble seeing as a child. Then again, I never really needed to see long-distance since I was homeschooled until sixth grade and never played sports, so my sight probably deteriorated very slowly, too slowly for me to notice, or to cause me problems…until seventh grade. That was when I realized that I couldn’t read the equations on the projector in math class, even while sitting in the front row right next to the machine and squinting. I kept having to stand and walk up to the board to read the equations and jot them down, which annoyed my teacher to no end. My parents took me to the eye doctor who recommended glasses. I was devastated, and honestly couldn’t understand why I needed them. I just wanted to have the board brought a little closer. I didn’t need glasses! There was nothing wrong with me, my sight was normal, I’d look like even more of an ugly freak in glasses, and besides, didn’t everyone in the world see like this? I couldn’t imagine being able to see any clearer. It was something I hadn’t experienced within my range of memory. It was outside my perception.
But I will never forget the first time I wore my new glasses. We left the optometrist’s office and I couldn’t stop staring out the car window the entire drive home. It was like looking out of a fishbowl with the world curving oddly at the edges of my vision. But who knew that the world was so detailed? I could see the individual leaves on trees, the astounding textures of bark, individual flowers and grains of asphalt, the hairs on our dog’s back…It was like living half-blind and suddenly being gifted with eagle vision. I was stunned. How much had I missed over the years because I didn’t know it was there? How did people absorb and process so much detail? (My own head was splitting by the end of the day; I wasn’t used to seeing so much!)
I remember asking my mom, “Is this how everyone else sees?” I don’t remember her reply, but now I think that the answer must be “No.” The colors I see may appear a little different to someone else. At a distance, even with my glasses, some things are blurry to me, but might be perfectly clear to someone else. And because my natural eyesight is so bad at distance, I am very, very interested in movement. When my glasses are on, this is not as pronounced, but sans glasses I am like a prey animal. I am constantly scanned for movement, never focusing in on one spot. If I see movement, I watch it until I know what caused it, ascertain if it’s a threat, then continue scanning. I suppose that’s why I can’t stand TVs as background noise because the constant flickering movement arrests my attention and I can’t look away.
In contrast, my sense of smell is poor enough to be laughable. Few people have a good sense of smell, but mine’s bad, even by human standards. Which is why I get stuck taking out the garbage because I literally cannot smell it. This is another sense that degenerated over time because I do remember what things smell like, and if something is literally under my nose, I can smell it. But a friend of mine has a sense of smell that is so keen, she can smell when a furnace kicks on two apartments away. Her sense of taste is also far superior to mine; I can’t put soy sauce on my sushi because the sauce overwhelms it, but she can enjoy a whole palette of tastes that are completely unknown to me. But I can hear rain pattering on my roof and she can’t. (My hearing actually is pretty good…although some people might believe otherwise. I do have selective hearing, although not by choice. When I get overwhelmed with information, especially when I’m multitasking, my comprehension of sounds decreases so I either don’t hear or can’t understand what people are saying to me until the information overload decreases.)
So you see that if my friend and I took a walk together along the same path at the same time and then sat down to eat the same food, we still would not be having the same experience. Why? Not only have we lived different lives and had different experiences, but the way in which we literally perceive the world through our senses is different. All of these different shades of perception, from backstory to behavior, to context and character, to social shading and sense, can leave even the simplest interaction fraught with complications, misunderstandings and drama. I’m not suggesting that you should explore and present and in-depth study of each of your characters’ senses (that would take far too long and bore most readers), but I do suggest keeping it in mind for your own interactions. You might not be able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but be aware that you might have less sensitive feet.