I had a fantastic opportunity today, the chance to experience a workshop about perception. To think about what it is that we see, what it is that we don’t see, and how to communicate all that to others.
I spent the day at an art museum, listening to an art historian talk about perceptions—about how and what each of us will see and pick up in a painting or a photograph or a sculpture—and about what it is we miss and why we miss it.
For example (and this is not a drawing we looked at today but it illustrates the concept), what do you see here?
Do you see a young woman whose head is turned away from you, looking over her shoulder? Or do you see an old woman, her head wrapped in a scarf, scowling down?
It’s all in our perception.
Our facilitator spent the early portion of our day talking about how we all perceive things differently, how we sometimes rush to judgment when we see something (a painting, a photograph, could be anything) based on our prior experiences. And how, when we see things as a problem, we want to solve the problem quickly—but often don’t take the time to describe what that problem is. At least in a way that ensures the person we’re speaking to really grasps what it is we’re communicating. This is particularly relevant for law enforcement officers, including detectives, who attend many of the workshops our facilitator presents. (This is a good thing, I think, that they’re attending!)
That’s where the challenge lies: we all may see and perceive that core problem differently.
We then split up into pairs and were given a specific painting to assess and then describe to the group. Here’s the painting my partner and I were given:
When I first studied this painting, I stood directly in front of it, both up close and then further back. I saw an older woman, probably well-to-do, judging from her clothing, her jewelry, the gilded and carved furniture around her, the brocaded upholstery on the chair on which she was seated, the intricately patterned carpet underneath. But then when I stood to the right of the painting to describe it to the group, I looked up at her face and suddenly saw a sadness in her eyes that was almost haunting. It hadn’t been visible before, but when I changed perspective, I suddenly perceived a difference.
It drove home what one participant said earlier in the day: that if we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.
What does all this have to do with writing?
As writers, understanding perspective and perception can help us add complexity and nuance and texture to our characters as we have them perceive things differently. Maybe our protagonist misses something, maybe he or she perceives something in a way that isn’t true, isn’t accurate, doesn’t quite capture the reality of the situation. Could be something about the killer or the victim or even another key character. Regardless, it makes a difference in the story and it makes a difference in how we, the readers, perceive that character and relate to him or her. Because who among us hasn’t been fooled by our own perceptions?
The experience, the lessons from this workshop are still with me, still resonating hours later. And my mind is awash in how to add those lessons into my draft.
What about your protagonist? Or your antagonist, for that matter. How could you introduce this sort of complexity, of having your character either misperceive something important or miss a key element entirely?
As Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” What will you make others see?