As a writer, when you’re building a world and learning about your characters, you’re thinking about a lot of things. Do you ever think about how your characters perceive the world? How they process information?
I’ve been reading a book called The Error of Truth that discusses the difference between changing what one knows versus changing how one perceives the world. It takes a stroll through history, pointing out times when human perceptions massively shifted – such as when people shifted from being hunter-gatherers to planting seeds and staying in one place. It happened most recently when people began to quantify the world.
One of the stories the author tells is about the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755, where a devastating earthquake was followed a few hours later by a large tidal wave. Instead of accepting it as a mysterious event beyond their control, they began to process the event using reason.
This change in how people process large-scale catastrophes didn’t come out of nowhere – it was influenced by the ‘Age of Reason’, that changed how people perceived and processed the world. (This could be an amazing novel – setting it during the Lisbon catastrophes of 1755, and the aftermath as people begin to process what happened in a different way. Anyone want to write it? I’d love to read it.)
The author also throws out the word weltanschauung, a german word that means ‘to see the world’. That’s a fairly superficial translation, I think; the word seems to be a bit more philosophical than that.
Weltanschauug is a very important concept both in life and in art.
Years ago, I worked in Human Resources consulting, and we used to tell our clients that perception = reality – meaning that if your employees perceive things to be a certain way, then that perception becomes the accepted reality. We measured their perceptions so that senior leaders could (hopefully) change their reality for the better.
Think about this as you build your world and lay out your plot – that a character’s perception is a character’s reality, and this reality may conflict with other realities.
(If you really want to go into Matrix-level thinking, how about this: There is no true ‘reality’ – there are only perceptions that align and compete as narratives move along.)
Even when there aren’t macrocosmic, sweeping shifts in life or in our art, people can still experience shifts in small groups, or even just internally.
In the microcosm of my own mind, a shift occurred in my young adult years. I began to learn things and hear perspectives that my rather insulated childhood had shielded me from. College was enlightening, and I felt the shift occurring as I began to question everything I had been previously taught.
I can’t speak for other individuals, but for me, the shift was gradual. I experienced a series of events that shifted my thinking without me realizing that it had happened until I was thrown back into the places I came from and company of people I had grown up with. It was then that I began to realize that something in me had changed.
In my case, it was knowledge that led to the shift – having more knowledge drastically changed how I see the world, how I think, and what I believe. And it’s made me think about current events, and how technology – namely, the internet – has helped people access knowledge that they may not have otherwise access.
My personal experience influences my writing. In a story I’m writing, a character has a moment where she realizes that she went about encouraging change in the wrong way. She says, “We changed the laws, but we didn’t change hearts.”
She’s frustrated because as a young leader, she was instrumental in changing a bunch of laws she thought were unfair. And then she left it at that – she did nothing to help people understand why the laws were unfair, or how society would be better once the laws were changed.
Years later, things are not going well, and she realizes that there was no shift in perception or in what people in her society believe. All she did was change some laws. She didn’t change how people view the world. And now that things in this world are falling apart, people are blaming the change in laws, insisting that they’re being punished by their gods. Which means they’re focusing their rage on her (tension! conflict!)
That quote above, something my character says to her brother as they both begin to really own that Mistakes Were Made, sums up a lot of the tension in their world, as well as a lot of the tension in ours. You can criminalize racial discrimination and decriminalize same-sex/same-gender marriage, but that doesn’t change how individual people feel about those things. If you hate people of color and think being gay is a sin, laws aren’t going to impact those belief systems. In fact, they may cause people with those belief systems to double down.
I would hazard to guess that this is why major shifts in how humans perceive the world tend to be rare, and why history tends to repeat itself. We pass on belief systems from one generation to the next, and when those beliefs are nested within your brain at a young age, it’s hard to get outside the mental barbed wire that grows around those pieces of your mind – we become wired in a certain way, and our cognitive systems are rather good at rejecting anything that doesn’t fit with our nested, programmed worldviews.
As writers, we need to know how our characters perceive their world. It’s a good question to ask during world building – how will these characters process information? Are they quantitative thinkers who use reason to process major events? Are they more belief-driven, prone to blaming gods or sinners catastrophes? Do they understand how the world works, or are their natural phenomena still quite mystifying?
It creates a lot of tension in a story when your main character(s) don’t think the way others do. My disquieted leader is more prone to use reason because she has access to knowledge sources that most people don’t. But, because she’s still a product of her world, she questions that reason, and wonders if she’s the one in the wrong, and ultimately has to learn to trust herself in order to bring about meaningful change.
I recommend reading The Error of Truth – it’s not a book that was written specifically for writers, but it’s an interesting book for anyone creating worlds that are different from the here and now. It’ll make you stop and think – How does this world I’m creating actually work? How do they *understand* things? Is is magic? Is it a god? Is it science?
It’s also an interesting look at how and why we process our world the way we do. It makes you mindful of how deeply ingrained the quantitative mindset is, and how it impacts everything we do – even our art.