This morning I walked the kids to school and then kept walking up to the cafe at the local supermarket, with the idea that I would get a mocha and drink it as I walked home. Somewhere between the school and the cafe, the $50 note that I had stuffed in my jeans pocket (because, I didn’t want to carry my purse with me) fell out. When I got to the counter, I put my hand in my pocket and ta-da, it have vanished.
Why am I telling you this? Well, firstly because it’s really given me the irrits and I want to share that with you, but mainly (and most importantly) because it’s a great example of how we – and therefore so should our characters – focus on what’s important to us in the moment, not on everything that’s around us.
My walk up to the cafe was lovely. I noticed the grass, and the sky, the clouds rolling over which made me think about how it’s meant to rain this afternoon. I smiled at mums walking home from the school with toddlers and preschoolers. The walk home was different. I noticed every leaf and piece of rubbish that caught the light and could, at a distance, be mistaken for a shiny plastic note. I looked intently at corners and fences where a note, picked up by the wind, might have lodged.
Instead, we take in what’s most important to us at the time. And that’s as true for our characters as it is for us. Let’s say your protagonist’s crush walks into the room with his/her best friend in tow. Chances are, all your character’s focus is going to be on that one person. They’re not going to notice what the best friend is wearing, or if they do it won’t be until they’ve taken every aspect of their crush. Hell, I know the guy I had a crush on in school had freckles on his ear-lobes, like little brown studs. Who else do you think noticed that?
Now, let’s say their crush walks in with an attractive stranger or their girlfriend/boyfriend. Your protagonist will definitely take note of that, won’t they? Maybe even before anything else. This person is a threat. A direct obstacle between them and the person they want to be with. They might never act to get rid of this threat, but they’ll still recognise it.
The point is, while you might want to describe how the clouds are wafting across the sky, or the meticulous detail on the birthday cake that’s being rolled out, you need to consider if that is actually what your character cares about in the moment. Because, if it’s not, your wasting your readers time, and a valuable chance to give insight into your character.
Just so you know, I’m still $50 down.