Filters–Everybody Uses Them. Use this to enhance your characters.

Human brains are interesting things. They are incredibly adept at processing a heck of a lot of information from multiple senses as well as internal processes, and still can generally react fairly quickly.

The reason it can do this is because it filters. When doing something it’s done a number of times before, it filters out lots of the thoughts about the steps and just does them. When experiencing something mundane that you’ve experienced multiple times before, your brain doesn’t pay much attention. Filtering helps us conserve brain power and capacity for things that tend to be more important–the new, the intense, the intricate.

However simple that may sound, filtering is actually a really complex process. How does our brain choose what to filter out? What to hold on to? What to pay attention to? What to examine more closely?

The answer is simple, yet complex: the things that we have experienced and the bodies we experience them through.

If a person is tall, or very strong, or very skinny or very fat, or has a mental illness, or a vision or hearing loss, or extraordinarily good sight or hearing or taste or smell or thinking, they are going to experience the world differently than people without those traits.

At the same time, a person’s culture, language, education, upbringing, experiences, traumas, relationships, socioeconomic status, and their attitudes towards them will all help define the filters they perceive the world through.

Some of the filters we perceive through are fairly easy to identify. If you were raised in the deep American South, for instance, addressing adults as “ma’am” or “sir” may be so ubiquitous that you only notice their absence. If, however, you were raised in the Pacific Northwest, someone using those words may rankle, giving the impression of an extreme age or power differential.

Some, however, are harder to identify but even more telling about your character. They may not talk about the time they almost drowned when they were four, but it might show in their avoidance of deep water. They may look like they had a fine upbringing, but their bossiness and need for control may be rooted in past trauma.

I suggest some practice exercises, mostly starting with self-examination, to figure out filters you may have. Here are some good questions to start with:

  1. What are you afraid of? Why?
  2. Who do you trust and how much do you trust them? Have you ever been called ‘gullible’ or ‘jaded?’ Why do you think that might be?
  3. Write down the five most important things to you in life, in order of importance. Do the same with your character. Try changing the order, or adding or changing out items with priorities you’ve seen in others. If other priorities make you uncomfortable, ask yourself why, and ask yourself what GOOD reason someone might have for having those different priorities, and/or what might have prompted them to prioritize things that way.
  4. What secrets do you have? Why is it a secret? What would be at risk if it were no longer secret?
  5. What is your order of birth (oldest, middle, youngest, only) in the family? How does this affect your attitude towards different situations, responsibilities, and expectations?
  6. What attitudes do you have now that have changed from when you were a teen? Why did they change?
  7. Think about a twenty dollar bill. Think about what that means to you, memories you might associate with it, what you would do with it. How might that change if you made less than you make now? Made more? Grew up in poverty or affluence but are no longer in that economic situation?
  8. Think about the following smells:
    • alfalfa and cow manure
    • Freshly turned, loamy soil
    • dry desert heat, hard pan, some freshly-disturbed sagebrush
    • metal, stone, asphalt, car exhaust, local shops
    • Pine sap, fallen, dew-damp pine needles, mushrooms
    • Lawns and paved roads after a summer rain
    • A library filled floor to ceiling with dozens of shelves filled with thousands of old books
    • Briny ocean breeze

      What ideas, memories, and emotions do these smells evoke? What do you think would be different if you had grown up there? Were visiting for the first time? Were experiencing them without ever having known they existed before?
  9. What do you consider a ‘worthwhile’ way to spend your time? Why?Conversely, what activities do you consider a ‘waste’ of time? Why?
  10. How do you define love? Why? What are some other definitions you’ve seen of love? How important is it? Why?

There’s lots of other filters you can discover with some examination of yourself and others. Use those filters to learn more about others but also use filters to create filters through which your main character perceives, interprets, and describes the world.

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