Unshared Reality

MCMSunday, March 10, 2019

I'm very big into this question of "what is reality?" right now — as you can see by my choice of projects — but one thing I wanted to explore was why it matters so much to me.

If you look back at my blog post about aphantasia you'll see that I don't create images in my mind when I read things. You can describe an object in stunning detail, and I won't be able to picture it no matter how hard I try. This is connected to visual memory too: I can meet someone and not remember their face the next time I see them, because I can't hold that data in my memory in a visual way. The only way I remember anyone is by compiling a set of key data points — hair colour, eye colour, out-of-the-ordinary features — that I can use as a checklist to recall who someone is. It sounds complicated, but it's not: everyone is ultimately just a set of physical attributes combined in a certain way to create an identity. I just come at it a bit more mechanically than others.

Which, when I realized this, made me wonder about the nature of reality.

Here's let's try this:

They walk into the room and pause by the window, peering out carefully, like they expect trouble. White jacket, wrinkled like it's had a long day already; unruly hair handled as best it can be; nervous fingers playing with the edge of the blinds.

Given that information, who do you see? A man or a woman? What ethnicity? What age? If I said that their lover came in and stood beside them, who would that be?

See, right now you're thinking I'm playing a game, trying to catch you in an assumption that it's correct — but that's actually the exact opposite of my point. To me, this person at the window currently has no physical definition beyond the hair, the jacket and maybe trembling fingers. From a functional point of view, I don't even care who you see this person as, because their identity and backstory aren't in play.

I've bumped into that a few times with characters in my stories, where someone says "oh, I didn't see them that way at all" and I have to tread lightly around the subject to avoid sounding indifferent and/or pompous about the situation. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize if you see one of my characters a certain way — and can hold onto that image throughout the story without issue — then that is 100% who the character should be for you.

It's not that I don't care about the characters, it's that I don't want to stand between you and your mental image of who the characters are. If having character X be African American means something to you (even unconsciously) then don't stop seeing them that way on my account. If it matters, I'll mention it up front so you don't go down the wrong path by mistake. If it doesn't matter, I'll leave it as undefined as possible, and you can fill in your own details to suit. You won't be wrong, and no one else will be right — you'll just see reality in your own unique ways.

This is something that I think happens fairly regularly in fiction, but maybe without specific intent. The whole issue of Hermione being black in that Harry Potter stage play shed light on the fact that the text never explicitly didn't say it was possible, so that interpretation could have been right all along. And so: if new readers, coming to the books for the first time, choose to see Hermione that way, then that's a good thing. It expands the boundaries of the world without breaking anything.

What's more, seeing Hermione as black unlocks a whole other set of subtext about her fight for "human" rights and against classism in the wizarding world. Again: if someone reading the books sees her this way and discovers a whole new set of meanings in that reality, isn't that just mind-blowingly amazing?

That is a big part of why I am focusing on Prism fiction right now. The story has been carefully crafted to allow the free definition of characters to work without friction. Whatever your hero's pronouns, whatever their surname or given name or combinations thereof, you will interpret their story differently based on the identity you give them. Your version of The Anti-Anti-Anti-Christs will be totally unique — your own slice of reality — not just in terms of who the characters are, but how and why they do the things they do.

To me, as someone who comes at writing without an image in my head in the first place, this is a purer form of expression: I don't want to comment on the veracity of how your imagination meshes with mine. I want to stay out of your way as much as possible, and let you take my blueprints to create a world of your own, to explore your own hopes, fears and prejudices in ways I never could, explicitly.

In the end, we all make our own little realities when we crack open a book. I just want to see far personalized I can make them for you.

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