What would happen if you asked seven people who went to the same party to describe what it was like? You would probably hear seven very different versions of what happened. In fact, it might sound as though each person went to a separate party.
Depending on perspective, there are about ten billion ways to interpret the same event. It's easy to misunderstand what's going on – especially if we're missing a key piece of information.
For instance, when I was teaching an anatomy class for adults, I had a student who sat in the back of the class and never changed her expression. Based on her stone face, I decided she must not think much of the class or the people in it.
Then she cam in for some tutoring, and I talked to her. She told me she'd been hit in the face with a hardball. Underneath her skin, her face had been reconstructed with wire mesh. She was lucky to keep her eyesight. Many of her facial muscles didn't even work anymore, so she couldn't change her expression even if she wanted to.
I'd had it all wrong. It turned out she really loved the class. My interpretation was based on what it would mean if I had sat in the back of the class never changing expression. But it's a mistake to interpret other people's actions according to what they would mean if they were our own actions.
For example, imagine a girl named Mina who is outgoing and loves to talk. When she doesn't talk to someone, it means she doesn't like that person. But her classmate Glenn doesn't talk much because he's shy. He's so shy he can't open his mouth around Mina because he has a crush on her. Mina assumes Glenn's silence means the same thing to him that it would mean to her. She thinks he doesn't like her, while the truth is quite the opposite.
We all share the same world, but we never know how others will see things, hear things, and put things together in their minds.
We don't know, but we can imagine.
WRITING AS SOMEONE ELSE
When you look at the world through the eyes and ears of other people – whether they're real or imaginary – it helps with the process of creating realistic characters. No matter where you are, you can imagine how different people would experience the same place.
Let's say I'm at the beach, listening to the shrieking gulls. As I sit on my black and yellow towel with the heat baking my skin, I begin to imagine what other people might say about this same beach.
I start with a good friend, someone I know well. I can easily imagine myself as him because I'm familiar with his personality. I think about the way he would hear the waves, smell the air, and see the intense sunlight.
Then I begin writing. The “I” viewpoint is his, imagined by me:
Every time I see a wave roll out to sea it carries another worry away. The sky's so big and the sand's so wide, I can actually see the curve of the horizon, which makes me realize my problems aren't as big as I thought they were.
Who knows if what I'm imagining is really the way my friend would feel and think? But I still like pretending to have his perspective.
Next, I notice an old woman reclining in a chair farther down the beach. She seems tired and sick. Her hands tremble. I ask myself what it would be like to be so feeble. Imagining myself as her, I write:
The sound of the surf is soothing, but it doesn't quite drown out my pain. Good thing I wore my thick sunglasses, because the sun would stab my eyes if I didn't have their protection. Still, its beautiful here. I wish I could go back in time and run into the waves, feel the water rushing past, smell the brine close to my nose. But I can't. Not today, not ever again.
Same place but a very different perspective.
Then I see a teenage boy twenty yards away, sitting alone and staring morosely at the ocean. I imagine he's just gone through breaking up with a girlfriend. As him, I write:
I know why the brought me to the beach. They think it's going to make me quit thinking about the breakup. It's not going to work. So what if the waves smash in and out? I don't care if the water has beaten mountains of rock into grains of sand. Doesn't matter to me. The air smells like dead fish.
Wherever you go, your imagination goes with you. Like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets. When you imagine what other people are going through – even strangers – you increase your imaginative powers. Then it becomes easier to create characters that seem realistic.