Characterization—denial or overlooking?
guest post by Gail Kittleson
“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” William James
Last fall, I used this quote for a writing class prompt, with focus on the word overlooking. Overlooking is like viewing a brilliant landscape of fall colors. Were so immersed in the colors, we don’t even notice the dull hues blending in.
It’s not that we pretend they’re not there. We see them, but choose to focus on all that’s bright and beautiful.
Overlooking signifies an attitude, a state of mind—you see what you’re looking for and skim over the rest. You acknowledge the Khaki, charcoal, and dull brown, but allow the orange, scarlet, and warm gold to capture you.
I think the difference between the two is a matter of control.
Denial controls you, whereas overlooking involves a rational, considered choice.
Denial is so ingrained in our behavior from childhood that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. I didn’t until sometime in my forties.
For example, someone might live with daily verbal abuse, but close their ears to it because they lack the stamina to fight. But when we face such a tendency and take steps to change it, we develop new ways of dealing with inappropriate behavior.
It’s no longer necessary to refuse to acknowledge abusive or neglectful actions. Rather, we bring them out in the open and confront them—and this type of deep change certainly does not happen overnight. But little by little, following the Serenity Prayer’s advice, we change the things we can.
Only then do we gradually become comfortable with living in the present moment rather than allowing the past to rule us. At some point, we become able to choose to overlook things for our sanity and peace of mind.
So someone in our workplace gets nasty about disagreeing with us? No reason to let their weakness escalate into a shouting match that defines our day—we don’t change or hide our opinion, but do our best to unruffle feathers and go on our way. This type of overlooking empowers us.
One of my heroines practices denial: virtually enslaved on a desolate Arizona Territory ranch in 1870, she simply can’t own up to her husband’s abusive behavior toward her. There’s no place for her to go, and any attempts to leave would probably end in her death. So she denies the reality she faces every morning and drags from one day to the next. In a word, she’s a victim and needs deliverance.
Another heroine lives in 1946. She lost a son to World War II and her husband soon after, and is still actively grieving. A hard worker, Dottie takes a job and becomes the muscle and sinew holding together a small-town Iowa boarding house.
In spite of a rather narrow-minded, set-in-her-ways employer, the situation works because Dottie has weighed the value of her job and determines to overlook slights. Embracing grief twice in rapid succession, she’s learned that some types of pain can be healthily ignored.
Her work gives her reason to get out of bed in the morning, and overlooking her employer’s antics allows her to successfully play her role and take home her paycheck. Dottie’s emotional maturity serves her well until . . .
A new young employee rocks the boat, challenging Dottie to take risks and state her opinion for the sake of principle. Through this situation, she realizes overlooking has its limits. By nature longsuffering, she tolerates the discomfort for a while before making a risky decision. At this point, to continue to let her employer have her way would be emotionally unhealthy denial.
Poet David Whyte says, "We may only get one chance in a lifetime to break the spell and break the promise that we will not speak in our own voice."
How can a woman with grown children and grandchildren not have learned to speak in her own voice? Trust me, it’s highly possible.
Dottie, of course, didn’t even realize she’d made such a promise as a child, to avoid severe punishment. But then some other unforeseen changes occur—ones that require even more courage, like the sudden attentions of the widower next door.
Nothing could have shocked Dottie more than realizing that the husband of her deceased best friend nurses a growing seed of love for her. A Dutch proverb quips, “For the concert of life, no one receives a program.”
At the same time, tensions mount as Dottie’s daughter Cora in California expresses how much she needs help with her increasing brood of children. Dottie’s deep fear of closed-in places, including trains, makes such a trip seem intolerable. How can she possibly meet Cora’s need?
Like most adults, Dottie faces choices—will she overcome her fears? Love them or hate them, these choices crop up in our very real lives. Did I say how writing Dottie’s story has strengthened me? Since speaking out in the face of injustice is always a challenge for me, I grew right along with her.
Did I say how excited I am to have received a contract for this novel? And the learning just keeps on—one thing I noticed during the first round of edits: there are always ways to make a character stronger.
Perhaps you’d like to share how your characters’ perspectives alter over the course of a story? How has their courage or cowardice affected you?
I’m giving away an e-version of my memoir, Catching Up With Daylight (WhiteFire Publishing) to a commenter.