Character Ideas, and Remember Magic Eye Illusions?

Do you remember the Magic Eye pictures? Those colorful, grainy optical illusions were everywhere in the mid-1990s. I was in 11th grade, and the art teacher had a Magic Eye book in the art room, propped up on a table. (This was the same art teacher who told me I was “too left-brained to do art.” But I’ll leave that story for another post.)

Whenever they had free time, students could be found standing in front of it. Staring. Focusing. Deep focusing. Unfocusing. Everyone had a method. Followed by excited exclamations that they could see the rocket ships! And the sharks! And the sailboat!

Whatever it was they were seeing was a mystery to me although I tried my damnedest. Until I stopped trying and pretended instead that I didn’t care. I wondered if everyone was lying about seeing them. They were at least exaggerating. Because I could swear there was nothing in those fuzzy prints. Was it like seeing an animal in the clouds? They saw it because they wanted to see it? It seemed that everyone eventually saw it. Everyone was in on it. Except me.

This might not have mattered or stuck out so vividly in my teenage memories, except that I already felt like I was on the outside looking in. By 11th grade I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t unpopular either. I made straight A’s. I had some friends. I had some boyfriends. There was no obvious reason for me to feel that way. But I did. I felt different, separate. I was on the outside looking in. The Magic Eye experience subtly reinforced that feeling. In that art room, everyone was part of a shared experience – except for me.

A minor, but similar experience was when others talked about getting brain freeze. I knew what it felt like for the cold to hit your teeth and the roof of your mouth, but a headache? That sounds kind of ridiculous. Maybe people were exaggerating. I liked ice-cream as much as the next person. Scoops of mint-chocolate chip. Chocolate milkshakes sucked through a straw at Carvel. Banana splits at Friendly’s. It had never given me a headache. Again, everyone seemed to have this shared experience that I was outside of.

It wasn’t until years later when I read that a portion of the population simply doesn’t experience brain freeze. But even more revelatory was when, almost thirty years old, I asked my ophthalmologist about seeing optical illusions. The doctor, in a very matter of fact way, told me that I could not see them because I don’t have complete binocular vision. I know that I wear very strong prescription glasses. But plenty of kids in high school wore glasses. It never occurred to me that one effect of my vision problems was the inability to see most 3D optical illusions. No doctor had ever mentioned that detail. I think I would’ve remembered.

Huh. So, no exaggeration. You all really are seeing sharks & rocket ships & boats.

Last year my husband & I took our son to the New York Hall of Science, and we went into their theatre to watch the 3D movie about whales. Afterwards, as we were filing out, they were saying how cool it was that the whale was flipping right out of the water into the air. The water spraying right out! Um, ok. I saw a whale on the screen, but I might as well have been watching on the TV at home. But at least now I knew that they weren’t exaggerating.

What does this have to do with writing?

Think about how your characters see, smell, taste, hear the world. Do they sense the same thing everyone else does or do they have a distorted view? Is their perception distorted by an actual difference in their senses due to their biological makeup, and if so, how does this affect their worldview, self-image, or relationships? Is it something like synesthesia? Is their perception more truthful than everyone else’s or is it an ugly distortion? Or is their distorted view due to something in their past, something so far back that they’re not even aware of it, something that tints everything else they see in their world? What about a character whose perception changes after some transformative event? (kind of like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist)

How does your character perceive the world differently than everybody else?

If you want to read an excellent novel where the main character has an extraordinary different sensory experience, check out The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. The main character tastes the true feelings of whoever has prepared the food.

In other news – if you want to read more from me, I’ve just started a newsletter. I include a short story I’ve written, news on anything I’ve published, plus I share resources for writers and a book recommendation for readers. If you want to subscribe, go to my newly renovated website and click on the link on the right. Also, I’ve just published an essay on The Mighty called “Why Labeling Autistic Kids Like My Son ‘High-Functioning’ is Harmful.”  

Thanks for reading!

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