Character Filters

by Brandi Reissenweber

When I was younger, my father owned a speaker repair shop. My brother and I would wait for him to finish work and hold different colored plastic squares up to our eyes, viewing the world through a veil of green or red. I'm sure you've all done something similar. Remember how it makes you see everything with a sheen of color on it? The key word I’d like to emphasize: everything.

This sort of comprehensive veil is what you should turn to when you’re working with a character’s perspective—be it in first person or a third person limited point of view strategy. When you’re in a particular character’s perspective, you must convey the world to the reader in a way that filters everything through that perspective. This is something that writers often forget, or integrate in only a token way. The most successful stories maximize the use of their filters to make for a rich and deep perspective. It will give the reader a stronger sense of the world, the character, and the experience of the moment.

Ben Fountain’s short story “Asian Tiger” follows the main character, Sonny, as he takes on a job as ambassador of golf in Myanmar. Sonny, a professional golfer past his prime, views the world through the strong filter of his occupation. He sees the central zedi, for example, as “the world's largest, albeit upside-down, golf tee.” When he looks at the National Golf Club, he doesn’t see trees and green or the horizon, but rather a …tight, slyly challenging links-style course with lots of blind approaches and tricky doglegs, while its emerald fairways and parklike woods suggested the moist, hushed intimacies of a tropical green house.

Figuring out your character's primary identity is a good way to start thinking about the process of filtering. A primary identity is the most immediate or prominent way a character identifies him or herself. Ask any group of people this question: What are you? You're likely to get a vast array of different kinds of answers. Some might answer by gender: I'm a woman. Others by occupation: I'm an optometrist. Others by personality trait: I'm funny. Still others by religion: I'm Hindu. And still others by cultural heritage: I'm American. The answer to that question is a primary identity. Out of all of your character’s roles, what does he or she identify with most closely at this specific point in his or her life? Like Sonny with his golfing, this will likely be a strong filter for perspective in your story.

At the same time, you want to make sure that a particular filter doesn’t become too saturated. Looking at a kaleidoscope—with many colors and shapes and facets—is much more complex and compelling than looking though a piece of red colored plastic. The former has more to look at; there are more discoveries to make. If every single reference in a story is based on the character's primary identity, the character is going to begin to feel flat and stereotyped, and the story will begin to lack authenticity. The primary identity is just one place to start; you'll want to look for other filters, to round out the character. Perspective can be thought of as a series of filters, all working together as one.

Choosing and emphasizing the correct filters for a character can help give the story a profound depth. It can also direct the reader as to what is important about the character. To change emphasis on the different filters is to change what the story is about. Imagine how different J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye would be if Holden Caulfield’s filters leaned more strongly on his identity as a sorather than his roaming youthfulness? Much power and meaning can be found in your choices here, and it’s a subtle element you can use to deepen your characterizations and create a unity in the fiction.

This article originally appeared in Letterpress.