From Another Perspective

Last week I wrote about how kids see things from a different perspective and that we have to remember that when dealing with them. For writers, perspective can be a powerful tool because a story is never truly whole until you’ve seen it from all angles. To illustrate this concept, I’m going to use the example that made me come up with the idea for this post in the first place: coworkers.

My day job is as a commissioning technician in the Alberta oil sands. For those who don’t speak “tradesperson”, that means that a bunch of people built a plant to extract the oil from the sand, and my company makes sure that everything is set up properly before it runs. To this purpose we have two major groups; field technicians and control room technicians. Field technicians deal with the physical equipment in the main area of the plant, while control room technicians are the ones watching the computer screens that the plant will be controlled from, and they deal with the internal programming.

Both field techs and control techs are required to commission any given piece of equipment (okay it to run). They have to work together constantly. But here’s the thing: control room techs are (gasp!) located in the control room, while field techs are out in the “field” (the main area of the plant). Neither can see what the other is seeing or doing, which results in many instances of failure to communicate and/or jumping to conclusions. I started this job as a field tech and was later moved to the control room, so I am in the prime position to give a few examples of the different perspectives and the animosity they can cause.

Say, for example, that you’re a field tech working on a transmitter that measures the flow of liquid through a pipe. Your transmitter has been set up to read a range of 0 to 100 meters per second. So you call up your control tech and ask to test the transmitter, but the control tech asks you to hold on for a moment because there’s a problem…his computer shows a range of 0 to 200 meters per second. So you wait…and you wait…and wait…and wait… You wait so long that you begin to think that your control tech forgot about you, so you try calling him on the radio again. He doesn’t answer. You try again. He still doesn’t answer.

Now you’re starting to get mad. Where the hell did he go? Finding out the proper range for the transmitter can’t possibly take this long. Is he just ignoring you? He must be fooling around up there in the control room with his other control tech buddies. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass that you’re standing out here in the cold, ready, willing, and able to get this job done. Damn him and his cushy, stress-free desk job… What an asshole!

I can’t honestly say that this exact thought process never went through my head. More than once my field tech buddies and I put in complaints to our bosses that were along the lines of, “We can’t get a damn thing done because we spend all day standing around waiting for the control techs to get back to us!” Then I moved up to the control room myself, and I got to see the story from the other perspective.

Say, now, that you’re a control room tech and you’ve just had a call from a field tech. He tells you that he wants to work on a transmitter and that his range is 0 to 100, but oops! The range on your screen is 0-200. So you ask him to hold on and you go out to find out whose numbers are correct. This involves flipping through a several-hundred-page document that, maddeningly, is organized in no logical way known to mankind. It takes you a good 5-10 minutes to finally locate the information on this transmitter and lo and behold, the field tech’s numbers are correct. Okay, so the numbers in the program have to be changed, but you don’t have the authority to make the change yourself, so you grab the necessary paperwork that must be filled out to request that an engineer do it. On your way back to your desk the control room coordinator snags you and shoves some more paperwork at you from another group of field techs. He also gives you a second radio because the second group is on a different channel than the first group. So you get back to your desk with your two piles of paperwork and your two radios, and you’re just about to call your tech to explain what is happening when your boss appears at your desk and asks you to look something up for him. You do so, because he’s your boss, and he immediately launches into a veritable Spanish Inquisition’s worth of questions about something you worked on over a month ago. You can’t recall the exact details so you sweep aside your pile of paperwork and your two radios and you dig through the mess of your desk to find your log book. While flipping through weeks worth of notes with your boss hanging over your shoulder you hear your name being called on the radio a few times, so you grab it quickly and respond that you’ll be right with them. In the stress of the momenet you don’t realize that you’ve accidentally grabbed the second radio and are actually broadcasting to no one.

In short, you’re trying your damnedest to organize a dozen things at once, and yet there’s a field tech out there in the field, fuming about what an asshole you are for making them wait. You see how perspective can dramatically change the story?

This can work in both directions as well, of course. I’ve been in the control room waiting for a field tech to disconnect a wire for the purpose of a test and found myself wondering what was taking so long. I’ve even considered how incompetent a person would have to be to have so much trouble with a single wire. Then, inevitably, I would find out afterward that the wire in question was fifteen feet in the air and the tech couldn’t find a ladder, or that the wrong type of screw had been used on the wire and the tech had to go hunt down a different screwdriver.

The whole world revolves around the different perspectives from which we each see things, and this is important to remember when writing, because it is a constant source of conflict. For instance, there’s the antagonist who truly believes they’re the good guy because they see their cause as idealistic. Or there’s the protagonist who loses all their friends by doing something stupid that they felt at the time was the right thing to do. There’s the age-old story of how men and women can’t understand each other, or how children see the world in a completely different way from adults. The world is swarming with conflict because different people of different genders, ages, races, religions, creeds, classes, backgrounds, educations, and so on all see things from vastly different points of view, and that is fiction gold. Think about it and use it. Some of the best books I’ve read make excellent use of showing how the “good guys” and the “bad guys” really just have a very different perspective on things. After all, rarely does anyone believe that they themselves are the problem.

Perspective. How do you use it in your writing? Where do you see it in daily life? What books have you read that make good use of this idea? Please share!

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