You’re (Not) So Transparent!

by Jason Black

Two months ago I wrote about the fundamental double standard, wherein we misjudge people because we can’t see deeply enough into their lives and minds. Given that we can’t do this, you’d think we would intuitively understand that other people can’t read us very well, either. Yet, in all our flawed glory, we engage in another doozy of misapprehension.

Psychologists call it the “illusion of transparency,” and for once, the name is apt. The idea is that we go through our lives believing that our feelings, our motivations, and our desires are as transparently obvious to others as they are to ourselves.

When we’re frustrated, stressed out, or elated, we tend to think everyone else will just know this and will react to us as we would wish, without us having to tell them. Even when doing something as prosaic as moving a pot from one burner to another, we may feel our motivations for doing so are perfectly obvious, when in reality our spouse may be wondering what the heck we’re doing that for.

Here are three broad ways writers can exploit this phenomenon.

Misunderstanding, resentment, and conflict

The illusion of transparency creates a mismatch between how we see ourselves and how other people see us. We see our inner self, with all our strife and troubles, while other people only see the calm facade we project on the surface.  You can easily build this into a rising-tension sequence culminating in conflict.

Imagine two characters, one of whom is doing something that is hard for her – something that represents real effort and struggle; something for which she wants a bit of recognition.

Maybe it’s an employee and her boss. Let’s say the employee volunteers to do some onerous pile of grunt work nobody else wants to touch. Let’s say she does it because she’s angling for a promotion. She stays late every night and comes in on weekends until it’s finished. But she doesn’t make a big deal about it because that would make her look needy, so she only mentions in her weekly meeting with her boss. “Oh, and I took care of that inventory thing. It’s done now.”

Consider how she now feels: frazzled, fatigued, and looking for recognition for her yeoman work. Is she likely to get it? No, because her boss can’t see that; no matter how she feels, she will still put her best professional face forward, so as far as he can tell she’s fine and it’s on to the next order of business. All he’s going to say is, “Great! Thanks. Now, what about the Zipco proposal?”

There’s the misunderstanding, and from it, the seeds of resentment and conflict. Because you know what happens now: as soon as the next grunt-work job comes along, who’s going to get asked to do it? Yup, the gal who did it without complaint last time. So rather than feeling praised and rewarded, she feels punished for her earlier efforts. Instant resentment.

This mismatch between how she perceives her efforts and the recognition she has been denied, versus how her boss sees her, will go on until a conflict arises. Maybe she boils over in a fabulous, juicy rant. “I work myself to death for you and what do I get? Nothing! Not a word of thanks or a little bit of a bonus, or even a measly comp day! Well guess what? You can take this job and shove it!”

No doubt, the illusion of transparency can lead people into serious conflicts. But notice, this hypothetical character has no one to blame but herself, for overestimating how well her boss could see her feelings. It’s not her boss’s fault he isn’t telepathic. She simply isn’t as transparent as she thinks.

Empathy, kindness, and compassion

On the other side, some people are unusually good at sensing what’s going on with the people around them. Some people just know when you need a hug or when to say, “Wow, this is fabulous hummus. Can I have your recipe?” Some people seem to have the x-ray eyes that do render others transparent.

We call that “empathy,” and people who have it tend to treat others with kindness and compassion. As writers, if we want readers to believe that a character is like that, we can simply show them doing or saying exactly what another character needs at exactly the right moment. Small, empathetic acts of kindness and caring are gold for establishing sensitivity in your story’s characters.

Empathy, maliciousness, and manipulation

There’s a dark side of empathy, too. It’s not a rule that empathetic people are kind and compassionate. It’s only a tendency. Some of them are manipulators, players, who use their power for evil. This makes sense; if you intuitively understand people’s emotional needs, it’s easy to manipulate them. It becomes your choice to give them what they want, deny it, or withhold it in exchange for something else, as suits your own goals.

Such characters never need resort to anger or force because they have a much more powerful tool at their disposal: the ability to subvert other people’s emotions to suit their own ends. For us writers, this is a wonderful path to creating wicked characters. And all you have to do is show the character ascertaining someone else’s emotional need, then pondering how to turn it to their own advantage.

Step into your characters’ heads

The tricky part for writers is that to us, all of our characters are perfectly transparent. We decide how everyone feels, so there’s no mystery like there is with people in the real world. Because of this, it is dangerously easy to let those characters slip into the same compassionate insights we have about them, even if that isn’t realistic or wouldn’t fit the story. If you let that happen, you lose the very source of conflict the illusion of transparency otherwise provides.

Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort out the thorny issues in their novels.  He is a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com.

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