Writing, reality, and “the dress”

If you don’t know what I mean by “the dress”, check it out here on Buzzfeed.

It’s definitely the most virulent net phenomenon so far this year. The dress actually is blue and black, but in that photograph some people see it that way and some people see it as white and gold. The response to the story of the massive debate included such things as the BBC asking “What would Wittgenstein say about that dress?” and apparently a special edition white and gold version is to be auctioned for charity.

It’s got me thinking about the larger idea that not everyone sees the same thing the same way. Even something that seems as simple and objective as the colour of a dress. Of course we all expect some variation. We know some people are colour blind and might not be seeing the same blue or green as someone else. But in this case the difference is so extreme that it’s hard for each side to fathom how the other side can be seeing something so drastically removed from what appears to be objective reality.

The truth is, there is no objective reality. There’s only perception of it. And that’s even within the limited range of what humans can see. A human’s “objective” view of a flower petal might be that it’s plain white. A bee would differ on the matter. It sees a bunch of spots and lines designed to entice the bee to spread the flower’s pollen. Who is right, the human or the bee? Both? Neither?

But enough of this philosophy. Of course as usual I related it to writing. It’s important to remember this lack of objective reality when you’re writing.

They should all see “objective reality” in a different way, just as real people do. Each character should have their own way of viewing things and feelings about them that fit with them. That will depend on a few factors.

  • Their personality. For example a cynical character might mistrust the motives of another character who is acting charitably. They might assume an ulterior or self-interested motive. Yet another character who isn’t so cynical might take the charitable actions at face value as genuinely self-sacrificing and generous. What of a character who’s irrational? A character who has hallucinations or otherwise perceives things nobody else does will view these things as entirely real. Will treat them as real. But even without that element all narrators are unreliable in some way.
  • On their context – that is their experiences. (See what I mean by context here.) This fits with the idea of “priming” in that Buzzfeed article. What you’ve seen before influences what you see when you look at the dress photo. The same is true with characters. Two characters might have very different reactions to a police officer for example, depending on their previous experience with police officers, or even just what they’ve learned from others like them about police officers.
  • Current circumstances. In A Clash of Kings, book two of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series a comet appears in the sky and is present for most of the book. Not only do different characters assign different meanings to the comet (or assign no meaning at all, think it’s just a thing in the sky) depending on their context , but also depending on what’s happening right now and how people think and feel about that. If it had appeared a few years earlier it would have been interpreted in other ways entirely.

The reader.
All readers bring their subjective perception to the book. They look at the characters and story in their own way according to their experiences, their previous reading, their preferences, all kinds of things. So as they say, no two people read the same book. Reviews and reactions to the book can be wildly contradictory – and that’s just looking at all the ones that liked it. In the same way, no one person reads the same book twice, because by the time they reread the book they are different, at least in part because of reading this same book previously. We’ve probably all had the experience of rereading something and finding we feel differently about it the second time, and that we notice different elements, see different themes and subtext you never saw before.

The writer
The writer has their view on the world, and with the arrogance we all have without realising it, they’re sure that their view is the way things really are. Even if the writer is careful to make sure their characters all have different views on the world, they still bring their own views into the story. They have a default reality that the “other” views they’ve given to their characters are diverging from. I still say the dress in that picture is white and gold and harbour a slight suspicion that everyone claiming to see blue and black is involved in some huge conspiracy to troll those of us who see white and gold because the dress is white and gold.

It’s hard for anyone to question their perception of reality, especially when it’s about something that feels to us like it should have an objective reality. A dress isn’t like a political view or an opinion on a song, where it’s easier to accept that people have different views of it. A dress surely is one colour or another colour. For some people their views and beliefs take on that same quality. They can’t admit their view is not reality.

But perception can be changed. Many ideas we now consider absolutely wrong were considered objectively real. Like ideas about women, or racial “theories”. On the whole we’ve changed that perception, to one where reality for most people is different than what it was. If we can do that as a society a thoughtful writer can do it too.

2 thoughts on “Writing, reality, and “the dress”

  1. Thanks for the link to the dress – I’d heard about it but not tracked it down. Just to be awkward I see white/old gold at the top and light blue/black at the bottom (probably because I’d been told it was blue/black). What I don’t see is it being such a dark blue as Buzzfeed’s second picture.

    And is it just me or does it look like a very scratchy, uncomfortable dress?

    I’ve always questioned whether colour perception is universal. The colour that I see as blue might be red to you if you could see through my eyes (or rather my brain), but as we would both agree that grass is green, the sky is occasionally blue and blood is red it isn’t a problem which shade we see.

    It is really difficult to step completely outside your own belief in reality, there are always going to be pockets of ‘the sky is blue’ things that are so obviously right that they can’t be questioned.

    I’ve got blue sky today and balmy temperatures of around 14 degrees, but from the sounds of it you might not be so lucky. That’s geography, but aren’t most of our differences down to where we are standing? 🙂

    1. If I look at just the skirt part it can look sort of light blue and the trim brown rather than gold, but definitely not the dark blue colour it supposedly really is.

      I envy your blue sky. Cloudy and very windy here. Boo! Differences are definitely down to where were are standing. Literally – what time and therefore what date it is depends on time zone, which makes you realise how artificial time of day and dates actually are.

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