May 31st 2011
The Skill List Project: Viewpoint Selectivity
This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Viewpoint and Story Experience…but since I consider viewpoint to be the #1 key to story success, I want to dig into it more deeply. In this posting, we’ll look at viewpoint selectivity: how viewpoint controls what you do and don’t write down.
That Famous Invisible Gorilla
By now, every self-respecting SF reader/writer should know about the Invisible Gorilla experiment: a psychology experiment at Harvard in which subjects were shown a video of people passing a basketball and were told to count how many passes the people made. In the middle of the video, someone wearing a gorilla suit ambled into the picture, waved to the camera, then ambled off again…but half of the test subjects didn’t notice the gorilla. They were too busy watching the basketball.
This experiment demonstrates selective inattention. Every second, your senses flood your brain with far more information than it can process and bring into consciousness. As a result, your brain is selective: your subconscious filters out anything it thinks isn’t important, so that you’re only conscious of what your subconscious decides is “meaningful.” (This has interesting repercussions, many of which have been explored in SF novels—see, for example, John Brunner’s The Stone that Never Came Down or my own Vigilant.)
For writers, the point is that people only notice a tiny subset of what’s around them. Furthermore, what they notice is dictated by their conscious and subconscious predispositions. If they’re consciously looking at or looking for something, their attention will obviously focus on the target object…but also, if they’re in the habit of paying attention to something (or if they’re just innately sensitive to that sort of thing), their subconscious is more likely to let that kind of information rise to the surface. Your subconscious delivers what it’s habitually asked for.
Usually this process is straightforward. Architects notice architecture, botanists notice plants, police notice “suspicious behavior.” If an interior decorator walks into a room, he or she will likely notice the décor, possibly to the exclusion of other significant details (such as the people in the room). A decorator’s subconscious is accustomed to placing importance on interior design, and will therefore give the décor more weight than other sensory input. If a carpenter walks into the same room, he or she will also pay attention to the furniture, but probably with a different emphasis: perhaps noticing small qualities about the woodwork rather than caring about the room’s overall look.
Selective inattention dictates how writers should and shouldn’t write scenes. Your viewpoint character will notice some things and ignore others; your viewpoint character will care about some things and be indifferent to others. This applies to all viewpoints, whether first person, third person limited, or even third person omniscient. What you put down on the page must be completely dictated by the character’s sensibilities within the context of the story.
How This Plays Out
Let’s take an example that’s fresh in my mind. I will name no names, but a few days ago I abruptly stopped reading a book which had SF content but which was written by a li-fi writer. The passage that made me slam the book shut was supposedly an email message written from one medical researcher to another. It described gory events that threatened the message-writer’s life…but the message didn’t contain a single word of medical terminology. It was (shudder) poetic. It was top-heavy with metaphor, and also with that maddening li-fi proclivity for characters dwelling on childhood memories, even in life-or-death situations when most people would be screaming, “What do I do now?” rather than having flashbacks to when they were six. (Honest to God, li-fi writers, it’s perfectly possible to characterize adult human beings without giving chapter and verse on their traumatic days in kindergarten. Give up the formula, folks!) To get back to that email message, it struck me as a bullshit authorial intrusion from someone who wasn’t even trying to depict a real medical researcher.
Look, I’m sure the real world contains at least one poetically-minded medical researcher who can’t let go of his childhood. But if that kind of man ever flashed a satellite transmission to a colleague saying, “My research has gone to hell and I don’t think I’ll survive,” surely he wouldn’t go into reveries and try to evoke an atmosphere. He’d try to convey as many solid facts as possible, using whatever technical jargon is necessary. It’s the writer’s job to simulate the feel of such specialized jargon while making it comprehensible to non-specialist readers. (Hmm, another skill to add to the list.)
In other words, if your viewpoint character is an expert speaking on his/her subject of expertise, the character had better sound like an expert and talk about the things an expert would care about. Otherwise, you cease to be convincing…and you make readers like me throw your book across the room.
Long story short:
- Think about what your viewpoint character will pay attention to in a particular scene.
- Write it down using the language that your character would use.
- Don’t write down anything else.
Not Done Yet
There’s still a lot more for me to say on this topic—just wait till I start ranting about characters who seem compelled to mention the color of their eyes and hair. But this posting is long enough, so as usual, it’s time to turn the floor over to you. Comment away!
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.
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