Seeing possibilities

Yesterday Natalie Whipple tweeted a couple of things that caught my eye:

I thought this was a really interesting observation, because it’s something I’ve noticed, too, with my stories. As I’m writing I know how the plot needs to play out, and so I usually know well in advance what decision the character is going to make. But I’m also in the head of the character, so it also seems obvious to me that they would make this decision. Sometimes to the point of overlooking other options that might be open to the character.

At the midpoint climax of Stars, for instance, it didn’t really occur to me as I was writing it that there were other options the protagonist could consider. I knew how it had to go in order for the rest of the story to play out, and it made sense to me that she’d make this decision. But not one, but two of my readers commented there, “why didn’t she do this other thing? or at least think about it?”

The funny thing was, the two readers had completely different ideas of what she should have done (or considered doing) in the situation. And neither mentioned the other’s option. Three possible choices there, and to each of us a particular one jumped out as being the obvious first reaction.

Going back to Natalie’s tweet, it seems clear that we bring our own thought processes and behavioural tendencies to our reading of a story, even just at a subconscious level. This is undoubtedly true of us as an author, too. As an author, though, we also have the benefit of having spent quite a bit of time inside the head of our character, so it’s sort of a dual point of view. So it’s possible that the two other options were overlooked because I the author didn’t think of them… but it’s also possible the character doesn’t consider them because it didn’t occur to her.

Having thought about it a bunch now, I think we tend to hold characters to higher standards than ourselves, expecting them to see all their options, and acknowledge them even if they choose to act differently than we would. But they’re human, just like we are, and just like we are they can sometimes be blinkered to other possibilities, or too emotionally invested in something to see another way, or it just plain doesn’t occur to them. I’ll be thinking about that next time I’m reading and find myself thinking “but why doesn’t she just do this?”

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