Yin and Yang: Subjectivity and Objectivity

By Steven Savage
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Last column I addressed the fact that while some writers (including myself) are very aware of what characters in our stories know, we often forget what our characters don't know. The responses were good, and inspired me to address another issue in worldbuilding and continuity, one that I've been curious about, but one that's hard to address: subjectivity and objectivity.

In the cases of knowledge and ignorance, it's easy to forget what characters don't know and how that's significant. However, there's an even more subtle problem - writing about character objectivity and subjectivity.

Subjectivity and objectivity of characters may not seem particularly hard to write. Wherein you can forget what a character knows or doesn't know, it's all to easy to assume that you know, at least, whether they're subjective (really know what's going on) or objective. Besides, a character viewpoint is one thing, not like a list of skills (or lack of the same), and you, the author, know what's really going.

These of course, are the problems, and they're real disadvantages to worldbuilding.

What problems? Exactly. It's easy to miss - I know I've done it too.


PROBLEM ONE: Thinking you understand your world.
Wait a moment, a writer understands his or her world, right? The answer is "yes and no." Sorry for the legalistic answer, but trust me on this.

Yes, you built it, you designed it, you know how it works. You know the currency, the sorcery, the weather, the technology. But the problem is you have one extra thing.

But you too have a perspective.

You will experience your created world different than your characters, and different than your readers. Perhaps you don't have children - then how well can you relate to characters that do? Perhaps you never knew your father - can you relate to a character who did? For that matter, imagine the effort to relate to a sixty-year-old sorcerer when you're a communications major in Sophomore year of college.

Being aware of your own "unobjectivity" in writing your world is extremely important in designing it and designing your characters. You need to understand your own perspective, experience, and, yes, biases in writing - otherwise they may color your work in unacceptable ways. If you've ever read a story where you had the odd impression the author was trying to say things that didn't jibe with their world, you understand.

Worse, you can end up deciding your viewpoint is the only viewpoint, dragging petty issues into your world's reality. If you had a bad childhood experience and so did everyone one of your cast, something isn't going to feel right to the readers.


PROBLEM TWO: Viewpoint as a single thing
Character viewpoint is not a single thing. Treating characters as having their subjective/objective knowledge of the world fitting into easily defined

It's not. Ask how many ways you've looked at a person, an occurrence, a piece of history. Ask how your mind has changed. Ask how your emotions colored what you saw and said and did.

Now look at your characters.

Real people (and thus real characters) are not simply slotted into "knows reality" and "subjectively deluded." Their experience is a kaleidoscope of perception, bias, insight, changes, and personal evolution. We all have our weird ideas and vast visions - so should your characters.

Easily slotting characters into "objectively knowledgeable" and "subjective" has all the same impact of slotting them into "good" and "evil" - namely it becomes shallow, boring, and makes your world unbelievable. It's especially bad when a story has objective-good people, versus the subjective-bad people - evil is hardly threatening when it's completely deluded, and the conflict feels as staged as a bad wrestling match.

At it's worst, you end up with heroes who Really Know What's Going On, and villains who Aren't Aware Of The Real World, and your story drowns in pretentious tripe. People will already know how it'll turn out, and that they probably won't be surprised in the least – but they may be quite bored.

Viewpoint is not a single thing for any person, and thus any character. We have our moments of knowledge and moments of delusion - so should any good character.


Obviously, you can end up feeling a bit trapped here - you know your world yet you don't, your characters are best as mixtures of subjective and objective. How do you "get out" how do you "know what to write?"

Writing is not about subjectivity and objectivity - it's about communicating experiences and being aware of them. So, realize that you have your biases in your world and don't make them part of the world as best you can - but use those feelings to understand how your characters may experience the world. Write your characters from their experiences, not from the pinnacle of Total Objectivity or the swamp of Total Subjectivity because you have your own perspective.

One thing I learned in my own writing is to work within perspectives, not supposed objective statements. A city street is not grimy, a city street "felt grimy to Detective Harrison, in a way that made him feel unclean." Same statement, but now we have a perspective to go with it. We know the street is dirty - and we also know that Detective Harrison has read way too much Mickey Spillaine and probably needs to take a vacation.

You have perspective. Admit it and use it.

Subjectivity and Objectivity are not easily assigned to characters, and you as a writer bring your own biases to your supposedly objective knowledge of your world. Be aware of these limitations, and try to work within perspectives, not objective statements, for richer and more believable stories.