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Monday, August 29, 2011

Analyzing Fiction: Perception verses Reality

As many of you know, my undergraduate degree was in psychology (and my minor was in sociology).  In other words, I find the workings & motivations of the human mind fascinating, and I also find the behavior of people in groups & societies interesting. For that reason, I enjoy debates over fiction: discussions about plot, character, and the intentions of an author while using various elements in their writing. In it all, I have come to believe that perception truly is nine-tenths of reality, and truth lies far beneath the surface ~ not in the apparent set of facts, but in our judgement calls about them...

What do I mean by this?

Take a moral-question with regard to "stealing" for example: Which of the following is considered stealing...and why?

a) Holding up a bank?
b) Picking someone's pocket?
c) Getting back too much change from a grocery-store clerk and saying nothing?
d) Finding a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk and keeping it?

As you can see, in every instance there is a constant, surface set of facts: You took (and kept) money that was not yours to begin with; you took (and kept) money that was not earned by you, and you took (and kept) money that you knew belonged to someone else. These points are not debatable. And if we were to look no further than the surface, we could form some very strong (perhaps absolute) opinions. However, let's delve a little deeper: What if the bank being held up was corrupt? What if the pocket being picked was that of a cruel, rich man -- and the pick-pocket was a starving child? What if that same grocery store shorted you on change last time? Does it depend on how much is "too much" change (is keeping fifty-cents better than keeping fifty-dollars)? What if the ten-dollar bill on the street was lying next to a business card containing the possible name and phone number of its owner?

I think you get the point.  First, we define something based upon our individual perception (the amount of extra change given back by the grocer was only a little); next, we define by degrees whether something makes sense to us or not (the grocer's goods are way over-priced, and the woman who received the money was poor). Then we make a judgement call, often as if the scenario was black & white (what the woman did really wasn't that bad), and we assume that everyone else sees it the same way, naturally.

So, how does this relate to fiction (you might ask :-))? Whether we are analyzing characters, plots, or an author's intentions--whether the viewpoint comes from a publisher, an editor, a reader, or a reviewer--as long as the individual is human, it is being filtered through perception and judgement. Consequently, if one is willing to look beyond the surface to understand the filter as well, a much richer (and more interesting) discussion will always take place.

***Blood Awakening Spoiler Alert***

In Blood Awakening, there is a very intense scene in which the sons of Jadon dispatch a nursery of Dark Ones in fairly short order, evoking a wide range of emotion depending upon the viewer's perception and judgement (everything from cringing & horror to cheering & satisfaction). First, there is the individual perception of "infant" to contend with: For some, infant implies a human-being, a creature with a soul, or an individual of value simply by definition...a very serious subject, indeed. For others, it simply implies a recently-birthed, newborn creature; in which case, there are newborn spiders, snakes, scorpions, and sharks in the world as what. Next, there is a judgement call to be made based upon the individual's concept of souls, evil, and self-defense: Do the newborns have souls; are they wholly evil; are they certain to murder, rape, and pillage if allowed to live?

To one who perceives the newborns as soulless, evil, non-human predators, the argument might sound like this:

a) If a child's crib was filled with newborn spiders or scorpions, would a parent hesitate to dispatch them?
b) If a popular ocean resort, notorious for shark-attacks, were suddenly filled with newborn sharks, would it be okay to act now -- or would we wait for them to eat two people (or ten) first?
c) In a spiritual war between angels and demons, would the angels show compassion for the newborn demons?

To one who perceives the newborns as having souls or being "babies" despite their species, the argument might sound like this:
a) Is it fair to strike down an enemy while it is defenseless?
b) Isn't everything that exists sacred, no matter how vile?
c) Is there a larger moral question involved in any type of battle?

In truth, to argue any opinion -- without first delving deeper to define the underlying perception -- doesn't make a whole lot of sense (the person who believes that a human being should be protected from a scorpion -- even if it's a baby -- is probably right. The person who believes that nothing is more sacred than a "newborn baby" is most certainly right). Ultimately, perception is everything.

***END Blood Awakening Spoiler Alert***

Finally, I'm reminded of  the well-known story of the Ten Commandments where God strikes the land with one plague after another in order to force a hardened pharaoh to let His people go. The last and worst plague is to strike-down the first-born son of every household that does not protect it's doorway with the blood of a lamb in order to force Pharaoh's hand.

Whether this is an act of justice, necessity, or cruelty likely depends upon the perception of the individual (Pharaoh probably saw it a little different than Moses). The point is: When debating life or fiction, it is important to keep in mind that perception is often the foundation of reality, and the richest debates are often created while exploring the former.  In my opinion, the wonder of a piece of art, a compelling movie, or an emotionally-charged book is that it offers us an opportunity to look (and think) beyond the surface. The challenge of a piece of art, a compelling movie, or an emotionally-charged book is to get us to look (and think)...beyond the surface.


  1. Great post Tessa. Like I said in my review of BA, I just had to takes a step back and look at the scene in a different manner. I know you enough to know what you were trying to portray in that scene. I just had to rise to the challenge =O)

    On the other hand, I was laughing like a loon during the final moments of the council chambers! Take that you filthy Son of Jeager!

  2. Surprisingly, that has been a typical reaction to the Salvatore scene. I must say, it was a bit unsettling to write...even for me. LOL

    Fortunately, I don't choose what I write by how I feel as an individual. I try to stay objective -- and true to the characters and plot. They lead; I follow (sometimes with my eyes closed) ;-)

  3. It was just fun to see a Dark One getting what his actions turned on him for once!