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You just don't understand me!

Today’s article is in some sense about the opposite of my last one on the fundamental attribution error. That article is all about what happens because we can’t see deeply enough into the minds and lives of others. This one is all about what happens because other people can’t see into our minds.

The illusion of transparency

As usual, psychologists have a name for this, the “illusion of transparency.” What it means is that we tend to over-estimate the degree to which people can see our own mental states: our hopes and dreams, our desires, our attitudes, our beliefs, and our emotional states. We think it’s obvious when we’re frustrated, or confused about something and want someone to explain more, or stressed out from working 12 hour days non-stop. We think these things are on the surface, and that people will thus react to us as we would wish, without us having to tell them what we want or need.

But they don’t, because in fact our inner lives are not so obvious to everyone else. That’s the illusion: we’re not as transparent as we think.

Misunderstanding, resentment, and conflict

Much like I talked about a long time ago in my article on inner vs. outer character arcs, the illusion of transparency creates a mismatch between how we see ourselves and how other people see us. We see our inner self, with all our strife and troubles, while other people only see the calm facade we project on the surface.

It’s not hard to see how to build this into a rising-tension sequence. Take two characters. Let one of them do something that is hard for them, that represents real effort and struggle. Something for which they wish want a bit of recognition.

Maybe it’s an employee and her boss. Let’s say the employee volunteers to do some large, yet tedious, pile of work that nobody else wants to touch. Like, say, manually verifying that the shipping addresses of all 10,000 customers in the database have a valid zip code. Perhaps she does it because she’s new and isn’t secure in her job yet. Or maybe she’s angling for a promotion. Whatever the case, she sucks it up and does the job, staying late every night and coming in on weekends for two weeks straight until it’s finished.

But of course, she doesn’t make a big deal about it to anybody, because that would be fishing for compliments and she doesn’t want to come across a needy drama queen. So she just mentions in her weekly meeting with her boss, “Oh, and I took care of the zip code thing. It’s done now.”

And he says “Oh, great. Thanks. Now, what about the marketing proposal for Zipco Industries?”

To her, the bags under her eyes have never felt larger or looked darker. She feels frazzled beyond belief. But he can’t see that. She’s still putting her best professional face forward. As far as he can tell she’s fine, so it’s on to the next order of business. He misses entirely her need to be recognized for the yeoman effort she put forth. There’s the misunderstanding.

Next time a nasty pile of grunt-work comes along, guess who gets asked to do it? That’s right, the gal who did it last time without making a big fuss about it. Now, not only was her effort not recognized, but she feels penalized for doing all that work by having been given yet another crappy job to handle. Cue some resentment.

Another round of absent recognition is sure to follow, until ultimately something gives. This mis-match between how she perceives her efforts and the recognition she feels she has earned, versus how her boss sees her will boil over in a fabulous, juicy rant. “I work myself to rags around here, and what do I get? Nothing! Not a word of thanks. Not a pat on the back, or a little bit of a bonus, or even a measly comp day! Well you know what, you insensitive jerk? You can take this job and shove it!”

And that’s part of the fun of novels: letting our characters do the stuff we wish we had the sheer temerity to do in real life.

No, it’s not hard at all to see how the illusion of transparency can lead people into some seriously conflict-laden situations. And we have no one to blame but ourselves: first, we make the mistake of over-estimating the degree to which others can see how we feel. Our indignation at the way we are then treated (or feel we have been mistreated), then causes us to commit the fundamental attribution error by assuming the worst about the people we feel have done us wrong. In fact, they didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not their fault they aren’t telepathic. We’re not as transparent as we think.

Empathy, kindness, and compassion

Of course, there’s a flip-side too. Some people are weirdly good at sensing what’s going on with the people around them. Some people just know when you need a hug or when to say “hey, wow, that was great lasagna. Can I have your recipe?” or whatever it might be. Some people seem to have the magic x-ray glasses that do render others transparent.

We call that “empathy,” and people who have it tend to respond with shows of kindness and compassion. So as writers, if we want readers to believe that a character is empathetic in that way, we can simply show them doing or saying just what another character needs right in that moment. This is the person who, unbidden, plops down on the couch and hands their distraught housemate a dish of ice-cream, then casually asks “so, how was work today?” Small acts of kindness, or simply of caring about how someone else is feeling, are gold for portraying your novel’s sensitive people.

Empathy, maliciousness, and manipulation

Then there’s the dark side of empathy. It’s not a rule that empathetic people are kind and compassionate. It’s only a tendency. Some of them use their power for evil. I mean, if you have a knack for intuiting people’s emotional states and emotional needs, it’s easy to manipulate them. At your whim, you can give them what they want, withhold it, or hold it out as a promise in exchange for something else.

These are your “users,” your emotionally manipulative types who never need to raise a hand in anger or resort to violence because they have a much more powerful tool at their disposal: the ability to twist other people’s emotional states and needs to their own ends. As writers, we can use this dark side of empathy to create some seriously wicked characters. These are people who immediately spot what kind of emotional interaction someone else is craving, and then ponder how they can turn it to their own advantage.

Getting in your characters’ heads

Making good use of the illusion of transparency can be tricky for writers, because to us, all of our characters are perfectly transparent. We’re the ones who decide how everyone feels; to us, there’s no mystery about that like there is with other people in the real world. This is where you need to practice that controlled multiple-personalities technique I wrote about back in April. In any interaction between characters, you have to work hard to keep each person’s mental state clear in your own head, so as to create believable interactions between them.

The danger, since characters are so transparent to us, is that it’s all too easy to let our characters slip into the same compassionate insights we have for them, even if that wouldn’t be realistic or wouldn’t fit the situation. And when that happens, you lose hold of the very source of conflict that the illusion of transparency would otherwise provide.

June 08, 2010 22:41 UTC

Tags: character, illusion of transparency, emotion, conflict, empathy

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