How to Structure Character Perceptions

Alice Munro and Perceptions


This Margin Notes is all about PERCEPTIONS. A passage from Alice Munro’s “Thanks for the Ride” shows us how to do two things with a character’s perceptions: one, structure a character’s perceptions so they mirror the cyclical process of perception we tend to use in life; and two, pattern a character’s perceptions so there is a strong surge of energy at the sentence level. 


Here is the unmarked passage for you to read first:


Write like Alice Munro


Margin Notes on Munro


Many of us would have stopped at the end of the narrator’s description. Maybe we would have added the participation with the how-do-you-do. But look at all the ways Munro makes Dick vary his perspective: he describes, participates, reacts (embarrassed), assesses, denies, recognizes, confirms, and arguably remembers (enough to conjure the image of The Date). There’s a rhythm, too, to how the variations repeat, forming a pattern.


This particular mode of thought undertaken by Dick is dialectical, and as such, signature Munro. Dialectical statements are simply the act of trying to discern the truth of opinions, in this case, Dick’s own opinions about Lois’s expectations. This creates an energy (from the friction generated in his own back and forth) and tension at the sentence level. There’s energy in the zigzagging, too, between denying-recognizing-confirming as Dick asks himself those typically dialectical questions: what is the essence here? What is meant? Interesting also that Munro started with “positive terms” (in rhetoric, these are the opposite of dialectical). Positive terms are visible, tangible, located in time and space, and therefore relatively unambiguous. This adds a strong contrast to the ambiguous terms that then fill Dick’s mind.


Any of you who know me, know I’m a huge fan of Betsy Warland. In her book, Breathing the Page, she identifies a process called Approach-Retreat-Return. Think of how you view paintings in a gallery, she suggests. We move in close to one painting, perceiving its details, then we move back to see it from a wider view, then we compare it to other paintings on the wall, then we might, a few paintings later, return to the first painting to perceive it closely again, with a new awareness of its nuances. This gallery metaphor is powerful for understanding the shifts we make when we try to perceive something, and it offers a great model for structuring your character’s perceptions. This is the cyclical process of perception we tend to use in life, though in some situations it might look more like Approach-Retreat-Retreat-Retreat-Return, for example.


The Munro passage below is structured as Approach (as the narrator, Dick, enters and observes Lois’s house), Retreat (as Dick pulls away from the scene, retreating into his mind to assess Lois’s expectations), Return (as Dick moves further into the physical space to sit with Lois’s mother).


Margin Notes on “Thanks for the Ride.” (Click here if you want a larger PDF version):
Write like Alice Munro



Now try it out for yourself. Even if you don’t use the variety of perceptions that Munro uses, Approach-Retreat-Return is a fantastic structure to add to some of your scenes.


Click here if you want a larger, printable PDF of the Recipe Card.





What do you think of this Approach-Retreat-Return method of structuring a character’s interaction with the world around them? Leave a comment below.



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