See Through a Glass, Darkly: View Your Story Through Your Character’s Filters

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

All that we experience is filtered through our preconceptions, our previous experiences, our beliefs, our prejudices, our misunderstandings. No two human beings view things entirely the same way. In some way, there really is no objective truth. Four million people can read your story and come away with four million interpretations. Many may vary only by a small amount, but no two will be exactly the same, and none will be the same as the one you were working with when you wrote it.

Background Image: Paula Bailey/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Consider this exchange in Hamlet:

What have you, my good friends, deserv’d at the hands of
Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Prison, my lord?

Denmark’s a prison.

Then is the world one.

A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and
dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

We think not so, my lord.

Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 239–251

Hamlet sums it up very well—thinking makes it so. How we think about things determines how we react, and how we think about things is determined by our filters. We all have filters. Some we are aware of, some we are not. Some filters help us see the glass as half empty, some help us see it as half full.

Some filters are so strong, they distort everything that comes into the brain. You probably know someone with a filter like that: the coworker that turns everything you say into an insult, the partner that takes any disagreeing statement as proof of your failure to be loyal, the friend that interprets every previous commitment as a passive-aggressive way to show that you no longer like him, the child that assumes that everything you say is a command… And eventually, the constant distortion ends up bringing about the very thing the filter is trying to prevent.

Your characters should have filters too. In fact, they do. You probably just think about it as “characterization” rather than filters. But thinking about your characterization in terms of filters can help you develop characters that are self-consistent in their reactions. Knowing their key filters and really thinking about what events look like through those filters is the first step. The next is to figure out what emotions would follow from the filtered event. Then figure out what the response would be to the filtered event—preferably while those emotions are at their peak. This process will give your characters truly authentic responses to key situations that show your audience how multi-dimensional and uniquely human they are.

Consider the following primary mental filters that three different characters might have:

Character 1: I can’t do anything right. Everyone hates me. No one respects me. They all think I am stupid.

Character 2: Everyone in my life leaves me. I am always alone. I can’t form any lasting relationships, and I don’t know why.

Character 3: I never have anything worthwhile to say. I don’t even know why I bother having any ideas, no one cares what I think anyway.

Now, imagine that each of these characters is a writer, and that they each get the exact same form rejection letter from an agent.

How would each feel?

Character 1: This character would probably get angry. The anger would start with the self (I never do anything right) and that anger would quickly move on to the agent that sent the rejection (Everyone thinks I am stupid).

Character 2: This character would probably feel betrayed. Even though the relationship did not yet exist, the character feels this is yet another example of being abandoned. The feeling of betrayal would probably lead to feelings of depression and loneliness.

Character 3: This character would probably feel worthless and insecure. They would withdraw inward. Once again, there is proof that they truly have nothing interesting to say.

Now, what might each of these characters do in response to the letter?

Character 1: This character is in a rage and blaming the agent. This state of mind would lead to a rash action that will boomerang on the character. Perhaps the character would send off a vitriolic and threatening letter to the agent and end up blacklisted.

Character 2: This character is feeling lonely and betrayed. In this state of mind, the character might seek out a bar hoping that a drink would dull the pain, and that they might be able to find some companion there that won’t betray them.

Character 3: This character would accept the judgement of irrelevance, and give up writing. Perhaps medical school would at least please the parents, who think writing is impractical anyway.

When multiple characters have very different filters, use the filters to up the tension. For example, suppose Character 2 and Character 3 are best friends, and 2 wants 3 to go bar hopping to “drown the pain of rejection.” Character 3 has given up on writing. The medical school application is due next week, and mom and dad have expressed their joy in the new plan. Character 3 says, “Sorry, can’t make it, and I won’t be in the writing group any more.” This plays right into Character 2’s major filter, and a blowup ensues that threatens the friendship.

Authentic responses come from the interaction of common events with unique personal filters. To get you started in thinking with filters, ask yourself the following questions:

  • In what ways are my character’s views of events affected by the way my character thinks? (These will be clues to identifying your character’s filters.)
  • What are my character’s primary filters? Do they color things in a positive way? In a negative way?
  • How strong are those filters?
  • How distorted are the filters?
  • How did the character get the filters? From a defining event? Gradually over time?
  • What types of inputs reinforce the filter?
  • What types of inputs “break through” the filter?

Then look through the glass darkly:

  • What emotions result from the filtered event?
  • What actions do those emotions lead to?
  • How does one character’s filter play off the very different filter of another character?
  • Does the story depend on the filter changing in some way? If so, what will make it change, and what will it change into?

And remember: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Final Poll Results

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