Perceptual Sculpting


I mentioned perceptual sculpting in the world building post a while ago, and decided to follow this up with something a bit more detailed. It was a phrase I hadn’t heard before, and apparently nor has wikipedia. This surprised me. Normally wikipedia is so reliable. Aaanyway…

Details are important, whether it be in world building or plot development. The thing is that readers are fairly well trained to pick up on details as plot-crucial. They actively look for Chekhov’s Gun because they’re so used to that technique. The oh-so-casual mention of a pumpkin patch in the back garden? They know Cinderella’s coach will come from there later.

The problem is that this awareness – this trained intelligence – in readers creates a serious imbalance in how the world’s perceived, particularly in 1st Person or close 3rd Person narratives. The character wouldn’t mention details that are normal and unchanging – they have no reason to. They only bring up the unusual. But that means the reader only hears about the unusual and has no base line of ‘normal’ to compare it to. Their perception of the world is skewed because they get the weird highlights rather than the standard background.

A real-life illustration is probably called for to show how significant this can be. I was discussing the subject with BB recently and he pointed out that our own view of history suffers massively from this. The reports of Roman life that we have are almost all first-person narratives from the likes of Pliny, Suetonius, Livy, et al. And they only focused on the significant and unusual details that came up. Naturally, because the normal isn’t worth mentioning; it’s assumed that everyone knows what’s normal because it’s everyone’s background and therefore hardly even noticed. Would you talk about how you cooked and ate Wednesday night’s supper? Of course not. But you might talk about the big dinner party you had. There are actually very few accounts of Christians being thrown to the lions in the arena but because it’s mentioned once or twice – as a remarkable thing – we have assumed it was a major feature of Roman life. Our portrayals in film and story therefore have it as a regular event. That almost certainly wasn’t the case.

As a world builder and storyteller, you have to be aware of how the emphasis you put on things communicates to your audience. Their perception of the world – and their understanding of what is normal and what is remarkable – is entirely dependent on this framing. What recedes into the background and what stands out? Balance this against what your characters would bother to mention, and you’ve got quite a job on your hands.


One response »

  1. Of the top of my head, I suppose that one way to deal with this is my finding ways to make the mundane relevant to the exceptional, or reasons why a normally mundane event becomes exceptional. The tension of a political negotiation at the dinner table making characters focus on or play with their food. Making the design of a Roman public toilet relevant to the outcome of an action scene. That kind of thing.

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