The Perception Gap: Using Character Perspective to Propel Your Plot

Your characters’ views of the world can do much more than simply define who they are. Here’s how to use character perspective to propel your plot.


If you’re like most people, when you believe something, you assume it’s true. It rarely occurs to us that we might be wrong, just as it rarely occurs to us that other people, as fair-minded and principled as we are, might look at the same events or facts and reach different conclusions. Yet it happens all the time (and not just in politics). I call this dichotomy a perception gap—and you can capitalize on its potential to reveal meaningful information about your characters and develop deliciously intriguing plots.

In Wendy Corsi Staub’s thriller The Final Victim, the protagonist, Charlotte, describes her grandfather as a rock—a kind and generous man who’s always there for her. But her grandfather’s sister, her great aunt, describes him as mean and self-centered. Two women interact with the same man, yet their perceptions diff er sharply. Who, readers wonder, has it right? Is one of them lying? If so, why?

Is one of them simply misjudging him? If so, what else might she misjudge?

Perception gaps encourage readers to delve into your characters’ motivations, to become more involved in your story, to place themselves in the incidents you describe, and to try to understand what drives your characters to act as they do.

[Don’t miss Jane’s talk at the WD Novel Writing Conference, coming soon!]

FIND (AND FILL) THE GAPS IN CHARACTER PERSPECTIVE

From a writer’s point of view, a perception gap represents an opportunity. If I know how a character perceives things, I can predict the character’s behavior, and if I can predict the character’s behavior, I can create plots that are organic to the character. Those are the plots that resonate.

Consider, for instance, a scene in which Lisa visits her friend, Cynthia, at her new home in wine country.

“Let’s go out back,” Cynthia says. “I want you to see the vineyards. The grapevines go dormant in the winter, but still, you’re going to die, it’s so gorgeous.”

Lisa follows her to a spot that offers an unobstructed view of the surrounding valley. Everywhere Lisa looks, she sees only ugliness, brown and withered vines, arid soil, nothingness.

“Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than these golden hills?” Cynthia asks.

Perception. Where Lisa sees brown, Cynthia sees gold. Where Lisa sees a barren scape, Cynthia sees beauty. Cynthia and Lisa are looking at the same valley from the same vantage point at the same time, yet what they see differs both tangibly and intangibly—a classic perception gap.

Will Lisa tell Cynthia the truth about how she perceives the scene? If so, how will Cynthia react? Will Lisa’s frankness lead to a more honest relationship? Or will Cynthia take Lisa’s criticism personally? Are their different perceptions metaphorical? Do they foreshadow a breach? Each option leads to a specific plot point, and perhaps that’s why plots based on perception gaps oft en work so well—they flow.

THE SCIENCE OF PERCEPTION

Perception is well studied, if not always well understood. Consider the story possibilities raised by these intriguing nuggets:

  • Is there a difference? An article in Smithsonian magazine titled “Where Men See White, Women See Ecru” reveals that scientists have discovered women do a better job at differentiating between subtle colors than men. Discover magazine reports that while the average woman can distinguish a million hues, some can differentiate as many as 100 million colors. How much that matters, of course, depends on your point of view—and the situation at hand.
  • Don’t I know you from somewhere? In Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, a character named Saul Panzer has an uncanny ability to remember faces. If he sees you once, you’re in his mental file cabinet forever. Readers might well have thought that Stout was exaggerating to set up resolutions to the mysteries that needed Panzer’s capability.
    Now, half a century later, we’ve learned that people who never forget a face truly do exist: In fact, London’s Metropolitan Police Service employs a category of detectives known as “super-recognizers.”
  • How did you know she was upset? An article in Psychology Today explains that a “Highly Sensitive Person” is aware of subtle noises, nuanced changes in mood or atmosphere, and delicate scents and tastes that escape most people’s notice. HSPs might not know their ability to read people and situations is unusual. Why would they? To them, it’s the norm.

MAKE APPEARANCES DECEIVING

I was 19, in ballet class at a prestigious conservatory. Ten of us stood at the barre, facing the mirror. The instructor, Miss Sheila, a retired ballerina who brooked no laxity, sloppiness or wandering minds, called out a complex sequence of steps, watching for mistakes the way a seagull scans the ocean for fish, ever alert and ready to attack. Midway through class, the door to the studio opened and two men in their late 20s wearing matching navy blue uniforms entered the room.

Their names were embroidered in white over their shirt pockets. Phil had a scruffy beard and chewed gum. Greg was tall and lithe, like a runner. They walked to the end of the barre. Greg squatted and, using a screwdriver that hung from a loop on his belt, began unscrewing the barre from the wall. Phil braced the barre, so it wouldn’t fall.

“What on God’s Earth are you doing?” Miss Sheila demanded.

Greg kept working.

“We’re taking the barre to the shop for repair,” Phil said.

“You must wait until after class!”

Balancing the barre with one hand, Phil reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a yellow slip of paper.

“Here’s the work order.” Miss Sheila snapped it out of his hand. “You got a beef, call the number at the top.”

A minute later, the two men finished their work, hoisted the barre onto their shoulders, and left. Miss Sheila used a phone mounted on the wall to dial the number on the form. After a moment, she hung up and tried dialing again. Then a third time. The truth dawned on Miss Sheila slowly. Phil and Greg weren’t authorized to remove the ballet barre. They were just two guys audaciously stealing it. I never saw the men—or the barre—again. It took the conservatory a month to replace it.

Their names were embroidered in white over their shirt pockets. Phil had a scruffy beard and chewed gum. Greg was tall and lithe, like a runner. They walked to the end of the barre. Greg squatted and, using a screwdriver that hung from a loop on his belt, began unscrewing the barre from the wall. Phil braced the barre, so it wouldn’t fall.

“What on God’s Earth are you doing?” Miss Sheila demanded.

Greg kept working.

“We’re taking the barre to the shop for repair,” Phil said.

“You must wait until after class!”

Balancing the barre with one hand, Phil reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a yellow slip of paper.

“Here’s the work order.” Miss Sheila snapped it out of his hand. “You got a beef, call the number at the top.”

A minute later, the two men finished their work, hoisted the barre onto their shoulders, and left. Miss Sheila used a phone mounted on the wall to dial the number on the form. After a moment, she hung up and tried dialing again. Then a third time. The truth dawned on Miss Sheila slowly. Phil and Greg weren’t authorized to remove the ballet barre. They were just two guys audaciously stealing it. I never saw the men—or the barre—again. It took the conservatory a month to replace it.

Dress the part and act the part, and you create a perception gap, which means you can pretty much do what you want. A character in Agatha Christie’s novel 4:50 From Paddington put it this way: “If you looked prosperous, people thought you were prosperous.” Perception derives from a conglomeration of facts, opinions, beliefs, biology, attitudes and, sometimes, smoke and mirrors. If you doubt this, read Frank W. Abagnale’s 1980 memoir, Catch Me If You Can, a recounting of his best swindles as the world’s most notorious conman. Abagnale succeeded because he knew that people tend to believe what they see, especially if what they see aligns with their expectations.

FOCUS ON COMMON DRIVERS

Perception gaps must be credible, and the best way to ensure believability is to focus on essential truths. Ernest Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”

There’s no shortage of real-life examples of how
perception-dependent people can be.

  • Eyewitness testimony: The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners through DNA testing, reports that mistaken eyewitness testimony is a factor in more than three-quarters of their successful cases. Furthermore, nearly 7 percent of these cases relied on testimony from more than one incorrect eyewitness.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: The term was coined by psychiatrists in the mid-1970s after hostages held in a botched bank robbery developed positive feelings for their kidnappers. It’s since been applied to a wide variety of case studies.
  • Successful Advertising: In blind taste tests, people prefer the taste of Pepsi, yet they buy more Coca-Cola. Researchers found that people feel more connected to Coke’s brand.
  • Gut Instinct: According to researchers at Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences, people who relied on gut instinct were right up to 90 percent of the time.

The chart bwloe shows how you can put this character perspective tactic to work in your own stories. Take note of the ways in which differing reactions related to these commonly held beliefs can lead to intriguing plot premises. Then, try it yourself. While this perception-determines-behavior approach to character development and plotting is a guide, not a straightjacket, perception gaps add genuine richness to your storytelling.

Our perceptions inform our actions day in and day out—sometimes in ways we aren’t aware of or even don’t comprehend. When two people perceive the same incident in different ways, this gap provides valuable fodder for your writing, equipping you to reveal deeper truths. These are the stories readers crave.


Character Development: Creating Memorable Characters | Online Course

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