How perceptive a character is of her surroundings may have dramaturgical relevance.
A character who is good at noticing small details may make a good spy or detective, so if you are developing a detective or spy you may want to give your character this ability. But whatever your character’s profession, stop at least once per scene and ask yourself,
What is a detail that only this character might notice?
Why is this important? Because their perceptions can make characters more interesting and vivid.
If a certain plot event hinges on a character perceiving some small detail or other, it may be a good idea to plant a foreshadowing moment long before the scene, to heighten the impact of the act of perception.
Furthermore, a character’s perception may influence how your audience understands and enjoys the entire story. How exactly depends on two important factors:
Is the third-person narrator perceiving what is happening and commenting on and interpreting it? Then effectively the narrator is a character in the story, with their own agenda and motivations. The degree to which the narrator presents salient or non-salient observations about the events she is relating makes a huge difference to the way the audience experiences the story. Generally speaking, narrators tend to be quite perceptive. Opinionated ones tend to provide their take on the action, manipulating the audience into a way of understanding what’s going on. Whether we believe the narrator or not, the fun is in the voice of this character.
Is the third-person narrator privy to the perceptions of all or one character in the scene? It may seem a little old-fashioned these days not to be so close to the protagonist as to not know what they see, hear, feel, and think. The trend in modern fiction is for the omniscient narrator’s personality to take a back seat and get the audience into the heads of the main characters. How a character reacts to events, what the character thinks of them, how they interpret them, therefore becomes an even more vital part of how the audience perceives the story.
That means that the unique way the character sees the world is an intimate part of the story itself. And warped ways of seeing the world can make for interesting story material. Via the conduit of the character’s perceptions, the audience gains understanding of and potentially emotional connection with that character and the story. It therefore pays for the author to pay attention to how the story may be related through the perceptions of a character.
Conversely, what the character does not perceive can play an important role. Is there an obvious blindspot that the character is missing or refusing to acknowledge? This can be telling. Is there something buried that the character fears so much that she refuses to see it? The question for the author is: how to get the audience to realise what the character doesn’t?
Point-of-view characters and first-person narrators provide the running commentary on the action of the narrative. By experiencing emotionally unsettling events and having the means to articulate them and furthermore reflect on them, the audience is led on the emotional journey by a first-hand tour guide. Close, direct, and rendered in the unique and telling voice of the character experiencing the story. What would the audience know and feel without that guide’s honest report of their perceptions?
The characters’ perceptions can strongly influence the mood or atmosphere of a scene. The more intimate the narration, the closer we are to the character’s perceptions, the more subjective the telling of the story gets. Which can be good, because subjectivity is likely to be more emotional than objectivity.
The point-of-view character or narrator does not necessarily have to be particularly intelligent in order to help the audience understand. In The Sound And The Fury, point-of-view character Benjy lacks the words necessary to describe what he sees in such a way that the audience would be able to get it directly. Yet eventually, the audience cottons on, and understands all the more.
To sum up, character perceptions can be:
- the telling and interesting observation of details,
- the meditation on and interpretation of events,
- cogitation on inner feelings and thus ultimately on the changing awareness of self, because gaining self-knowledge is the emotional heart of many story journeys.
Who perceives what in your story?