How Your Character’s Beliefs Colour their Perspective

Whether its first person, third person, or the see-all-know-all omniscient point of view, the power of a story is the vicarious adventure of living someone else’s life. That’s what the reader is there for – for the virtual reality of someone else’s experiences, their emotions, their perspectives.

And it’s the perspective part that we’re exploring today. Everything your character processes is filtered through a lens. A lens that is moulded by beliefs, assumptions and foregone conclusions. And this lens, this perspective, is their truth. Your job as an author is to capture how that lens colours and filters their view of story world you’ve built around them.

The key to making true-to-life characters is capturing that world through their eyes. And what makes a story three-dimensional is the knowledge that this lens creates a subjective truth. That just like the real world, that there many other truths. That just like we’ve all seen, it may be plain old biased and wrong.

We’ve all seen it, even done it ourselves. It’s the baseball manager who clings to old strategies, the employer who hires according to old stereotypes. It even includes the young man in my current manuscript that firmly believes that we are all hiding a dark side thanks to his childhood experiences…

And psychology has demonstrated exactly how much those beliefs colour our perception.

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Consider this experiment. Participants were asked to evaluate nine year old Hannah. One group was led to believe Hannah’s parents were well-educated professionals, the second group thought that she came from a run-down neighbour and that both parents were uneducated blue-collar workers. Both groups watched the same footage of Hannah taking an achievement test. She correctly answered some difficult questions, but missed some relatively easy ones. Even though all participants saw the same tape, Hannah received much lower ratings of ability from those that thought she was poor when compared to those who thought she was affluent.

What these results demonstrate is that ambiguous events will act like an ink blot – your character will see what they want or expect to see. They will pick and choose the information that confirms their belief, and ignore the rest. Which is exactly what my character does in my current manuscript, perceiving events as confirmation for his beliefs and using that as proof that his actions are justified.

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Psychologists have also found that your characters’ beliefs can hold strong even when faced with information that plainly dis-confirms their belief.  One experiment had one group of participants read case studies suggesting that people who take risks make better firefighters. The others read cases suggesting the opposite conclusion. Readers then had to form a theory explaining what they had read e.g. ‘he who hesitates is lost’ or ‘look before you leap’. When the participants were told the information they’d been provided was false, about half did not abandon their firefighter theories. In a far more real-life example, some ten thousand residents of nine Muslim countries were interviewed five months after the attack on the World Trade Centre and found that over 60 percent did not believe that the attacks were carried out by Arab men.

So your characters beliefs can be so entrenched that they are unwilling to change them despite hard evidence to the contrary.

This very human penchant is labelled a confirmation bias. It’s the tendency to interpret, seek and create information in ways that verifies our existing beliefs. What psychology has documented is how tightly we cling to it, but also why.

Our brain has a need for closure, a need for certainty. It likes its foundations to be built on solid knowledge, not wishy-washy guesses. So it takes shorty cuts, jumps to conclusions. And once it’s done that it likes to shore up those foundations by picking and choosing the evidence that supports it. Sure, it’s not a perfect system, but uncertainty makes us nervous, whilst certainty makes us sure. And although our brains vary in their ‘need for closure’, every brain will have a preference for the security of certainty and default to it.

The fascinating thing for an author is how your character manages this.  Are they the person that has their belief challenged, and they experience a paradigm shift as a result? Or are they someone that clings to it despite the opposing evidence?

The even cooler bit is you can have your reader believing these truths right alongside your protagonist, and have them experience the heart-wrenching, life-changing moment when they find out otherwise. Or you can let your reader see exactly how skewed these perspectives are, and know they’ll face-palm every time your character makes a decision based on these beliefs. Either way, or the countless shades in between, your reader will be hooked. Why? Because you’ve just created a character that is just as flawed as we are; and that makes them authentic, true-to-life and someone they understand on a fundamental level.

What do you think? Can you see a confirmation bias working in your character’s mind? Maybe you’ve noticed it in your everyday life? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

2 comments

  1. I love this aspect of psychology – not the reality of it, but when put into books… It’s something that’s present in my WIP Tiger’s Eye, but I’m not sure which stance I prefer – for the reader to believe the truth w/ Olivia, only to make it come crashing down later, or to have it blatantly obvious, frustrating my reader to no end.
    Each side has it’s merits…. I feel like keeping them ignorant has more potential for teaching lessons, to show how confirmation bias works, while making it obvious is better for those who can already critically analyse the situation and understand what’s the depth of what’s happening ….. I don’t feel like that sentence quite conveys what I meant in my head, but I can’t quite reach the right words…

    Awesome post! I love psychology + writing; it’s so interesting to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true Ace! In my current manuscript there’s a little of both – the reader knows that the protagonists belief skews their perspective, but the plan is to surprise them with how far. I do love how psychology can give us that extra level of understanding 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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