I have a close friend who grew up with a motto: “If the joke is funny enough, you can tell it anywhere.” The phrase is simple on the surface, but has so many implications. If we dig down, what my friend is saying is, “If the joke is funny enough to outweigh the uncomfortableness it may cause, go ahead and tell it!”
However, who decides the value of humor versus the potential discomfort it generates? This is where consideration of Perceived Values becomes key. Today I will be talking about perceived value and how it can be applied to characters in your stories.
What is Perceived Value?
Personally, I find it fascinating at the ways in which people, especially in business and sales, decided that their point of view was the sole factually correct point of view. In microeconomics, perceived value is the customer’s opinion of a product’s value to him or her. It depends on the product’s ability to satisfy his or her needs or requirements. When a person fails to consider the needs, background and opinions of another, however, conflicts of perceived values can arise. Let’s say a Trent is at a car dealership. The salesman there tells Trent that one of the essential features he must have is undercoating. In the salesman’s mind, undercoating is essential, being a man who’s lived most of his life in unpaved, county roads South of Yosemite. Trent, however, sees no value in it, since he’s buying a Prius and has no intention of leaving the smooth roads of downtown San Jose. The salesman may press Trent on the value of an undercoat, and Trent pushes back, until, of course, Trent relays his intentions for the car’s use. The Salesman may, in turn, understand Trent’s perceived value and quit pushing it, but I’ve seen my fair share of client/vendor relations break down because differences in perceived value were not considered.
What happens, then, when monetary investment, like selling a car, it isn’t a part of the conversation? Let’s say an argument starts in which emotional belief is the dividing force. A good example is the argument over who was the best Captain in Star Trek. When it comes down to it, we are comparing imaginary captains in an imaginary story. However, those in that argument have assigned strong emotional weight to the men and women who fill that role in the various Star Trek shows. There is no objective way to differentiate them but I bet I’ll never be able to convince you that Sisko is actually the best out of the bunch if you have your heart set on Piccard.
This is where most people have a story or two around how frustrating it can be to change another person’s view. We all think differently due to our physical, emotional and environmental differences. With our individual differences ingrained we perceive different values in everything.
Writing Perceived Value into Your Stories
So, as you can see, perceived value can take many forms. Let’s go back to my friend’s motto about offensive jokes. Who judges whether the joke is funny enough? His judgement of the humor value of a joke is based off of the reaction he gets from the people after he tells it and as you might guess; his system has a lot of trial and error built into it. Now, personally, I have to give him some credit because he is very good at reading a room and other people. He uses his past experiences to put together strong presumptions for how a joke will be perceived. But I have seen him fail, and fail very, very hard. That’s because, for all of us, there is no way we can truly extrapolate other people’s perceived values.
How does this, then, translate to your characters? I did an article back in February for the Fictorians about defining love. One point I postulated was that every character will define love differently, due to their past experiences. The same goes for those characters’ perceived values. Every character in your story will react differently to events and plot points based on their past and even after the events as they occur in your story. Could this be the fifth discovery of a dead body for one character and the first for the others? How does that change their perceived value of distress in finding body number five as opposed to body number one?
This is a tough question since I’m guessing the majority of my readers have never seen one dead body, let alone five. So, how do you generate a perceived value for an experience you yourself have never gone through? As the author, it is your job to assign a set of experiences that influence your character’s perceived value as they move through the story. Even if you have never encountered a dead body (or five); Does it matter? Is it routine? Is it horrifying? One way to answer these questions is through research, which can help you attribute a perceived value that is appropriate for your character. As I mentioned in my Fictorians article, you could have a discussion with someone who actually has a perceived value for that situation. Perhaps, a medical professional or mortician might be able to tell you what dealing with a dead body actually feels like. It isn’t an exact application of perceived value for your character, but it can help you approximate better than just imagining it yourself.
So do you have any stories about differences in perceived value? If so, leave them in the comments, I’d love to hear where perceived value from a character’s point of view worked or didn’t work for you.