In my first yoga teacher training that really touched on the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, one of the other trainees mentioned advice her stepfather, who had terminal cancer, had once given her.
“We see the world through the lenses we CHOOSE to wear.”
A simple statement, but one that has stuck with me ever since. It’s a great reminder about how our past history and experiences can color our outlook on life. In these days of political polarization, we see it all the time. People hold one opinion and use that to define everything else they see.
It’s the difference between the perception that a person is shy vs. standoffish, or that somebody is mean vs. stressed, having a bad day vs. out to get you. It explains how you can say one thing to me and I can hear something totally different. And it’s key to defining characters.
If you haven’t read Thrown Out, there might be a spoiler or two here, but it’s the best writing example I have. Dan and Chris have very different experiences with people accepting their orientation, and that colors their reaction to the actions of other people. When Joe gets into it with Dan at the softball field, Chris assumes that’s typical of people’s reaction. Dan (and Liz, who explains to Chris) know that there’s more there, that this is something specific to Joe, and that it revolves around Dan. (Why? Well, that’s another story…) Chris is looking at the event through his experiences, his lenses.
To use something more people know (21 million vs. a few hundred) look at NCIS. If you were watching back in the early seasons, there’s a moment at the end of the Season 2 opener, the case where McGee joins the team. (Spoiler alert!) At the end of the episode, they catch the dirtbag, and he tries to excuse his actions. Gibbs slams him into the wall and tells him there’s no excuse for risking his wife and daughter. It’s intense. The last time we saw Gibbs that angry, he was chasing Ari, the terrorist who shot one of his people. Two years later, at the end of Season 3, we find out Gibbs’ wife and daughter were killed by a drug dealer while Gibbs was in Desert Storm. It’s a discovery that changes our perceptions of his reactions in many earlier scenes. And it’s a great example of a character’s lenses coloring their actions and reactions. For Gibbs, there probably is no higher crime than endangering your family by choice.
As people, we can examine our own behavior and see how our lenses, our experiences color our perceptions of what goes on. As a yoga teacher in a gym (not much philosophy in those classes), I have to use multiple lenses when sequencing my classes because different people find different poses challenging or easy based on their bodies. As writers, we need to use those same multiple lenses when getting inside our characters’ heads. Dan and Chris often have different reactions to events because they are so different. In Intricate Dance, Becca has a different outlook on the Fitzgerald case because she is a woman, bound by many of the same laws. Riordan can agree with her 100 percent, but he has rights that she doesn’t and so his choices don’t carry the same implications as hers do
Some characters realize they have a bias coloring how the experience things. Some don’t. And a few know the bias is there but can’t or won’t look past it.
What lenses is your character wearing? Does s/he know they’re there? Or does s/he assume that his or her perception of events is reality? Are the character’s actions and reactions consistent with those filters?