Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Reading characters

It no longer surprises me how two people can read the same book and come away with two totally different views of it. Because of this, I rarely take much notice of book reviews. If there's one thing that I've learned over the years, it's that reading is a very subjective process and that we bring our own interpretations to everything.

For about ten years, I ran a lot (well over a hundred) of selection skills workshops for a number of organisations - mostly two-day workshops. Before I seriously turned my hand to writing novels, I created characters for the practical exercises in these workshops and wrote detailed job applications based on those characters. Workshop participants, in groups, considered a set of three applications and had to decide which applicants they would invite to interview - and justify their decisions in terms of the selection criteria for the job.

Easy, right? Each group is considering the same set of information, using the same criteria.

Um.... no. In just about every single workshop, each group of 3 or 4 people came up with entirely different choices. And not just for one set of applications. I created others, for different characters, for different positions - and the same thing happened. Individuals and groups interpreted exactly the same information in VERY different ways. Administrative assistants, scientists, managers, academics: no matter what the position, one group would think applicant A was the most brilliant, perfect applicant - and another group in the same room would think that Applicant A wasn't worth the three seconds taken to discount them. And so on for each applicant.

Granted, I'd carefully created each character and application so that there were both strengths and weaknesses, but the interpretations and assumptions that were made about the applicants were amazing. They were always very effective exercises, of course, because they DID demonstrate very clearly that our reading of such things is incredibly subjective - and I used that to then teach techniques to make the selection process less subjective.

I learned a lot from those exercises myself. Firstly, that I enjoyed creating characters and was good at it - it was wonderful to see, time and again, senior managers and university academics (NOT the world's most excitable people!) getting excited about characters I'd written, and thoroughly enjoying the exercises. That really gave me the encouragement to seriously try writing. But secondly, I learned that no matter how much you give people, things will always be open to interpretation, and that often people will 'see' your characters quite differently to how you envisaged them.

Yes, it's true that there's a lot more scope in a novel to reveal your character than there is in a job application, but you only have to read a range of reviews of the same novel to see that the truth still holds - the reader will always interpret through their own lenses of assumption, preference, and experience.


Claire said...

This is a very significant issue for me at the moment. Human resources staff generally don't give me even an acknowledgement, let alone an interview. However people who are high up in the industry that I am express amazement that I don't already have a job and say that I am just the kind of person they would like to have working for them.

Bron said...

Very frustrating, Claire! I think it's pretty true that the average application gets only about 40 seconds reading before the interviewer has formed an impression, one way or the other - so getting your key strengths for the job in the first paragraph is important.

Most of my work was with unis and government agencies, which traditionally expect longer, more detailed applications than private enterprise. If you're applying for those sort of jobs, and would like me to have a look over an application, let me know. My email is bronwyn at bronwynparry dot com.