You’ve probably met someone who has “no filter.” That is, they say what they want, whenever they want, even if it’s inappropriate for the situation. You’ve probably also met someone who thinks aloud to make sense of the world, for better or for worse.
When it comes to how much we can sense and be aware of at any given time, humans are limited. The world is full of so much detail. We can only convey a small amount of that detail at any given point.
Filtering is a crucial part of developing a character voice. You might be writing something completely autobiographical, but you will still need to decide what details to include and what details to exclude as you narrate a piece. Filtering the right details will reflect the narrator’s background and experience, even if you don’t tell those details explicitly to the reader.
For example, if you have a character who works tech support, that character might take notice of the make and model of every computer they come across, whether a printer is inkjet or laser, what kind of hardware a computer is running on… Meanwhile, if you have a technologically illiterate person shopping at an electronics store, they may only take notice of the size and color of a machine, details which the tech support character might completely overlook as trivial, unimportant information.
Filtering in a way that makes sense for the character is what lends your piece a sense of verisimilitude and internal consistency. You can also experiment with filtering to show differences in a person’s headspace as they move from situation to situation. In my pieces “Full Moon Rising” and “Your Luminous Heart, Bound in Red” (writing as S. Qiouyi Lu), I create a “wolf mind” voice that speaks in monosyllables and experiences sensory detail differently than the human mind. In “Full Moon Rising,” I go so far as to change tense in the narrative to reflect this perspective shift into the wolf mind:
Although she was going to let Ramiro see her wolf form in its entirety tonight, she still wasn’t going to let him watch the transformation itself. That was the one place where she allowed the wolf mind to dictate her decision. Her human side understood fellow humans’ curiosity, but her wolf side was fervently private and kept its distance from humans. When she metamorphosized, she was at her most vulnerable, after all. She was less concerned about the grotesqueness of the transformation than with her safety. There was no telling how humans would react to her transformation and what they’d do if they panicked.
She took a deep breath, takes off her clothes, and lets the moonlight bathe her limbs in silver. The bones change slowest. Thigh bones shorten, spine and skull lengthen. Feet and hands contract. Fat bubbles and moves; skin crawls as it tightens around newly knit muscles. Fur sprouts all over, leaves her shrouded in warmth. Jaw hangs heavy with sharp teeth. It is the pain of holding a stretch just beyond her limit, at first sharp before changing into its own pleasure: settling into a body that fits her mind.
The last part to change is the throat. Up until then, she can still speak, even if her voice becomes gruff. But as her throat moves into its final position, she loses the ability to speak as humans do.
She paws at her neck as it shifts. Her nails hit something hard: ting! She knows: gift from mate. Leaves it alone.
Filtering gives you powerful and direct control over how you convey a character’s interiority. Some readers want to find characters whose interiority reflects their own; others want to read stories about characters whose thought processes are entirely different from their own. No matter what, if you’re careful about your filtering, you can create a narrative that piques someone’s interest via the unique way you have conceptualized the character voices within.
Reading comprehension exercises
- Pick an occupation.
- Freewrite for 10 minutes from the point of view of a professional in that occupation.
- Freewrite for 10 minutes from the point of view of a person who has never even heard of such an occupation before.
- Observe the differences in the choices you made to filter details in the two pieces.
- Observe where there are similarities regardless of which character voice and filter you wrote with.
- Pick an object.
- Freewrite for 10 minutes from the point of view of someone who uses or encounters the object daily.
- Freewrite for 10 minutes from the point of view of someone who has no idea what the purpose of the object is.
- Compare and contrast your freewrites for similarities and differences in the choices you made as you were writing.