Like real people, characters within the pages of a story should perceive the world around them in ways that are unique from each other.
In Psychology, perception includes both the sensory experience of the surrounding environment and the individual’s response to that stimulus. In other words, perception is the process that helps individuals to organize and interpret the world around them.
Consumer Behavior recognizes an individual’s perception filter is determined through 3 perceptual processes:
Selective Exposure = the tendency to filter information, disregarding or avoiding data that isn’t regarded as important.
A classic example of this is heading to the kitchen for a drink or snack during the commercial break of a television show you’re watching.
Selective Comprehension = the tendency to understand and interpret information that is consistent with what an individual already feels and believes.
This latest in the Mac versus PC series of commercials is a good example whereby one’s own personal experience with an operating system reinforces the premise put forth by Apple.
Selective Retention = tendency to subconsciously remember only that information that is consistent with or supports personal attitudes. Conversely, information that isn’t consistent with those beliefs is forgotten.
Post-menopausal women who identify with Sally Field’s concerns with stopping and reversing bone loss, may not retain the cautionary information mentioned in the Boniva ad.
Understanding the interaction of these 3 perceptual processes may be critical to marketers, but what does this mean for authors—and readers?
According to Dwight Swain, “a story is a chain of scenes and sequels.” [p. 85] A sequel acts as a transition between scenes. It offers the point-of-view character a chance to react to the action (events) of the previous scene and develop or reinforce her goal and motivation for the next scene.
Not too surprisingly, a character’s reaction should be colored by her perceptions. That is, what does she chose to focus on in this sequel stage (Selective Exposure)? What things happened in the previous scene that reinforced her feelings and beliefs about herself and her situation (Selective Comprehension)? And, finally, what does she carry away from the previous scene experience that supports her goal and the motivation behind it?
One of the intriguing things that an awareness of this perceptual process allows both writers and readers is the ability to see beyond the limits of a character’s perceptual filter. As a writer, I like the challenge of constructing a “logical” reaction for my protagonist, well aware that other characters’ actions and reactions hint at different interpretations. As a reader, I enjoy the challenge of ferreting out the misperceptions a character has of her situation.
Read Part 2
[Technical Sources: Anderson, Rolph. Professional Personal Selling. Prentice-Hall Inc, 1991. and Swain, Dwight V., Techniques of a Selling Writer. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.]
© Robin E. Matheson