Since I am neck deep in revisions right now, I figured I would write about a specific chunk of craft:

Subjectivity.

What is it?

It’s a way of getting into a character’s head in so that the audience can see, not objective reality (whatever that is), but the reality that the character lives in.

This exists in all genres. As a only occasional poet, I’d argue that poetry can easily be the most subjective of the genres, but then poetry is only sometimes concerned with story, and more often concerned with what my brilliant poet friend Shae calls recreating a specific vibratory, emotional experience for the reader. Getting on a wavelength together, if you will. Being in each other’s heads.

Fiction can also be quite subjective, especially when it has close psychic distance or an intimiate voice. To me, though, the most interesting experiences in subjectivity come in film. Film is supposedly an objective genre: the unfeeling camera’s eye. Of course, as early as Georges Melies folks were messing with the objectivity of the camera’s eye. Still, subjectivity requires a finesse of effects in film.

movie poster from Rashomon

In an obvious way, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a classic of subjective film. The audience gets the same story three ways from three different characters; what seems like a simple story is not so simple. It’s a mystery and a whodunnit, and the audience’s concept of who is innocent or guilty changes several times during the film.

Men in Black: Trebeck and Ventura

Alex Trebeck and Jesse Ventura guest star as Men in Black in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”

In a silly way, the X-Files Episodes “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “Bad Blood” both involve characters recounting the same events in different ways. I think “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is an episode that any writer should watch because it is about a writer trying to gather some kind of objective truth out of a mess of subjective accounts from people. It also dances an interesting dance between the supposedly objective intro before the credits and the subjective accounts from everyone involved.

 

Scully's version of the Sheriff

In “Bad Blood,” even the characters change depending on who’s telling the story. Luke Wilson’s small-town cop character in handsome and intelligent in Scully’s version; in Mulder’s version he’s Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, complete with buck teeth (“He had a slight overbite!” Mulder declared when Scully calls him on it.) and lines like, “Y’all must be the gov’ment people!”

At the end of that episode, though, they go back to the town and we get an “objective” view of the situation.

Mulder's version of the Sheriff

 

X-Files is interesting to me in general in terms of subjectivity and objectivity because we the viewers get to see the aliens, lake monsters, fluke men (guhhh), and even vampires in ways that Scully and Mulder don’t. We have seen like five or ten times the aliens that Mulder has. That being said, so much of the filming is done in from someone’s perspective as part of a recounting that objective truth is difficult to determine. I’ve watched the whole show, and frankly I’m still not sure the single truth of what actually happened to Mulder’s sister. (I know, they supposedly explained it. But that was hard to swallow for me considering the large amount of subjective data we get throughout the show. I mean, is Alex Trebeck also a Man in Black?)

On a less immediately obvious level, Black Swan is an incredibly subjective film. Black Swan is a movie that relies on the audience believing in Nina’s subjective world. We have to believe that what she sees is true. Otherwise, it’s a movie about a crazed ballerina slowly acting more and more paranoid until she breaks a mirror, stabs herself, and then dances Swan Lake.

Even little scenes in Black Swan are subjective. When Nina is learning how to do the Black Swan’s 32 pirouettes or whatnot, we see both her in the camera and we have a moment of the camera becoming her, and swooping around in circle after circle so that the audience can feel the disorientation that she does.

With each physical transformation or moment that she sees the double, we see reality as she does, a flash of the Double and then a flash of her own reflection helping us to see her scattered mind.

Nina and her reflection do not match.

Subjectivity is also necessary in films like Fear and Loathing is Las Vegas…otherwise it’s about some questionable men in Hawaiian shirts trashing the living hell out of a hotel room. If they’re tripping balls, we the audience had best be tripping balls with them so that we understand the stakes they’re feeling in the story.

Johnny Depp in a distorted camera lens

The lens subtly distorts the image here; the narrator and camera are both unreliable. And this isn’t even the part with the living wallpaper.

So, my little April Fools, I have  an exercise for you, just for funsies:

Take a story of yours, or a folktale, or a story you know really well, and rewrite it two ways: As objectively as possible, and then as subjectively as possible. What information might only make sense in one of your character’s heads, and how can you let us in? (Bonus points if you storyboard this out, for those of you who’ll touch film or comics with a ten foot pole.)

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! by John Scieszka & Lane Smith is a good example of the “fairy tale” version of this prompt.