Thursday, May 29, 2014

Perception Bias in Fiction and Real Life

Dan here. I'm the new guy, and and I'm thrilled to join the ranks of Caitlin, Lisa, and Karlie at Trouble the Write Way. I thought that for my first post here, I'd remind you that very little of the information we receive in modern media -- television, radio, internet -- is neutral.

This is particularly true for the big issues, the ones where the stakes are extremely high. Whether it's Amazon versus Hachette, Democrat versus Republican, or religion A versus religion B, there is little room for neutrality.

And every side has a story to tell. The same event told by two opposing parties could not sound more different. On CNN, it was a drone strike that killed one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. On Al-Jazeera it was an unprovoked attack that took the lives of civilians. Words have never been more powerful than they are now. It's a good time to be a writer.

There May Be No Right and Wrong

I read and write epic fantasy, which has come a long way from Middle Earth. Don't get me wrong, I love The Lord of the Rings as much as anyone. But in those books, there were two clear sides. Good versus evil. Right versus wrong. In the real world, and in much of the modern epic fantasy I've come to enjoy, things are not so clear cut.

One of my favorite novels is The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. In it, the protagonist and his friends are essentially mafia. They make a living by taking the hard-earned wealth of others, either by theft or con artistry. The antagonist of that book -- the Gray King -- has legitimate reasons for wanting revenge on the leaders of the mafia (and the nobles with whom they've arranged a secret peace). At times, I wanted him to succeed.

Perspectives and Bias

In great books that reflect our modern world, the conflicts are multi-faceted, and complex. It's not always clear who we -- as readers -- should be rooting for.

Thus, the perspective of whoever's telling the story matters a great deal. It biases us toward or against certain characters and their agendas. In Harry Potter, we knew that the Slytherin house had produced more Death Eaters than any other. The narrative begins biasing us against Slytherin very early. Yet the sorting hat almost put Harry into that house. And the head of Slytherin, Severus Snape, would ultimately have a profound influence on Harry Potter. Those books told from another perspective, say that of Draco Malfoy, might have been a very different story.

Getting Unstuck with Multiple POVs

I love the sort of epic fiction that offers viewpoints from multiple characters. Robert Jordan and George RR Martin have done this particularly well. You've got these clever, ambitious characters who put a spin on everything -- or give deliberate misinformation -- to further their own agendas. You have rivals who all think they're doing the right thing. It makes for excellent fiction because it's close to what we see in everyday life.

The next time you're stuck writing a scene or chapter, try tackling it from another character's point of view. Ideally, a character who has a different take on things, a different goal. You might write something that won't make it into the final manuscript, but you'll probably learn something new about the characters. Your story will be better for it.

It's Your Turn

What about you, fellow writers? How do you use perception bias in your fiction?

Karlie: Great post, Dan! Lots of food for thought here. I love how you explained all this. The example from Harry Potter, especially, was right on.

Personally, I've found the multiple POV you mentioned works really well. In my book Forsaken, a hired assassin plays a huge part. From all other eyes, she's twisted and brutal, but from her own...we can start understanding who she is and how she got that way.

Also, from one character's viewpoint, his father is controlling and verbally abusive. But is Peter truly everything his son despises, or simply trying to protect him? Black and white have evolved into shades of gray. The reader has to weigh the motivations and goals of each character, from all sides, before making a judgment.

I completely agree with everything you've said here and I love the way you put it.

Caitlin:  Draco Malfoy is one of my husband's favorite characters, and we have had many discussions on what it must have been like for him to have all that family pressures and this kid (Harry) who just gets away with everything even though Draco rarely does. Poor guy! :)

I also love gray, and tend not to like books that paint the villain as 100% evil. It might be a pollyanish streak in me, but, mostly, I just think it's much more interesting if you have to concede that even evil actors sometimes have motives or driving thoughts that aren't so foreign from our own. I won't say what book (as to not give it away), but I recently read a scene where a character murders another character (who I liked much more, BTW) in cold blood. I was really sad for the dead character, and I didn't even much like the murderer before he went and killed the likable character. But the writer handles the buildup and reaction so deftly that even though I didn't agree with the murderer's actions, I could somewhat understand why he did it. I could feel the pain he felt in thinking that he had to do it to protect his family while, simultaneously feeling his loneliness and withdrawal when his wife rejected him when she found out. When, later, she forgives him in a subtle gesture, I almost cried.

Stories like that make you question your own morality and what it means to live and die and, yes, even kill. And that, IMHO, is a good thing.

Lisa: I think Caitlin hit the nail on the head. Books and characters who makes us ask ourselves questions have done their job. It's a good thing to question the justice system, what your mamma always told you, what your teachers taught you. Stories, whether told from the pages of a book or from a cinema screen, should push the audience to think about ethics and morality. If the individual, in the end, sticks to their guns. Good. If the individual, in the end, changes or begins to change his/her perception. That's also good. The point is to perpetuate thought...of course, after thoroughly entertaining the audience. :)

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