Describing Through a Character's Experiences18:58
Our experiences colour the way we see the world. When we’ve had a bad experience with something, it takes on a negative association in our minds. And when we encounter something new, we view it in terms of what we already know. In the same way, how our characters see the world should be coloured through their experiences. It can be as simple as the way their background affects their views now, or as complicated as a person from another world seeing our modern, 21st century life for the first time. Today I’d like to talk about describing from the point of view of a character from essentially another world.
A good example is Captain America. Coming from a world 70 years in our past, he views the 21st century through his past experiences. To him, the internet is to be read like an encyclopaedia or a history book in his time. Text messaging might be understood as sophisticated telegrams. He is confused by the slang of today. But things such as army bases are familiar because of his experiences. When moving a character from one time period to another, describing the new world through their eyes means drawing associations between what they know already, and what they are presented with, and often involves much confusion.
Things get complicated when characters come from a world which is totally different to our own. We’re all very familiar with characters who go from our world to another, such as in the Narnia books. But when moving a character from a fantasy world to ours, understanding how that character sees the world can often require a lot of thought. What from their world would they compare a car to? Would they be confused by the customs? Maybe they’d see morning coffee as a ritual, or consider deathmetal music as a form of torture. If a character from The Lord of the Rings came to our world now, would they see a computer as a palantir in another form?
An excellent example of this is Thor. Coming from Asgard, he finds many things difficult to understand. His experience of travel, when not flying, is to ride, so he goes looking for an animal he can ride, whether it be a horse, or a cat, rather than trying to find a car to drive. When he wants to describe how his people go through the world trampling things in their path, he describes them as being like a Bilgesnipe, an animal from his world, rather than as an elephant, as we might. From the way he travels to the metaphors he uses, his viewpoint is coloured by the experiences he has had in his own world.
When describing what a character sees, it is important to get inside their heads and understand what they have experienced before so as to understand how they would view the world now. This is especially important when the character comes from a world that is very different to our own, whether that world be a different time period, or a fantasy realm. Knowing their past experiences and being able to apply them to what they experience now gives the character more depth and strengthens their voice throughout the story. So when your characters experience something new and unfamiliar, spare a thought for what they already know. You might find your descriptions are stronger told through the lens of the character’s experiences, rather than your own.
What are your favourite examples of well written descriptions through a character’s experiences? What authors do you think do this well? Do you agree it’s important to describe through a character’s experiences? What advice would you give for doing this well?