Being Young and Certain

Picnic Table in Costa Rica

I heard a song a few minutes ago and it made me feel old. It wasn’t because I didn’t understand it, it’s because I did. It’s a song I would have listened to in my youth, even one I would have felt a kinship to.

The song is You Don’t Know by Kobra and the Lotus. It’s a good song. They have a good sound, hard and fast. It’s very epic metal, operatic vocals over pounding drums, screaming guitars. The thing is, it’s the lead singer going on about how the person she’s addressing doesn’t know what it’s like to be her.

Why did this make me feel old?

I remember when I thought this mattered. When I thought that the person not knowing my perspective mattered. Now I have a very weird perspective on this.

Nobody really knows anyone else’s perspective, nobody knows what the other person has been through, and nobody knows what their truth looks like. To tell the truth, it doesn’t matter. Two people can’t see each others truth, without some sort of external reference, and even then, probably not.

Also, you aren’t right. That’s okay, neither am I. Both of us have gotten details wrong, both at the time and, even more, in our memory.

I have far, far too much confirmation of this fact, so much that it makes me uncomfortable all the time.

It’s not just that the world isn’t what I think, or what you think, it’s that what we think we saw isn’t what happened. That’s a good starting point, assume that you just don’t know, that the other person probably saw something other than what you did, and that what they are reacting to is that thing.

This can be a problem though. If you are the only one taking this tack, and the people you are reacting to are acting with certainty, those people will railroad you, every time, and if you aren’t okay with being railroaded it becomes a challenge.

It gets even worse when you realise that every single argument has the same criteria. The least reasonable person wins.

So, what does this have to do with writing? A lot. If you want realism you have to realise these rules, and not make people bow to rational arguments, not make everyone remember the events as they happened. On the other hand, it can be so satisfying to have the protagonist be objectively right, and to have others (eventually) realise it. Sometimes it’s okay to do that, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen an emotional argument get settled that way.

For me, I try to write my characters as being as right as they can, but often that’s not all that right.

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