How do your characters experience time?

“Life is temptation. It’s all about yielding, resisting, yes, no, now, later, impulsive, reflective, present focus and future focus. Promised virtues fall prey to the passions of the moment.” ~ Philip Zimbardo

photo of clockAre your fictional characters stuck, perhaps all on a single plane, moving at the same pace? Is your memoir missing something that you can’t put your finger on, but that you know would give your life’s stories more depth and meaning, a richer perspective?

Try giving some thought to your characters’ perspectives on time. The quotation above by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, author of The Time Paradox, could easily apply to good fiction and narrative nonfiction: “It’s all about yielding, resisting, yes, no, now, later…”

Zimbardo describes six basic time perspectives:

“There are two ways to be present oriented. There is two ways to be past oriented, two ways to be future. You can focus on past-positive, or past-negative. You can be present-hedonistic, namely you focus on the joys of life, or present-fatalist. It doesn’t matter. Your life is controlled. You can be future oriented, setting goals. Or you can be transcendental future: namely, life begins after death. Developing the mental flexibility to shift time perspectives fluidly depending on the demands of the situation, that’s what you’ve got to learn to do.” ~ TED Talk by Philip Zimbardo (emphases added)

Today I’m going to spend some time thinking about not only whether my characters have a clear time perspective, but how my own take on time might be influencing what and how I write. You can get a quick overview of Zimbardo’s theories from this entertaining RSA Animate video of one of his lectures:

How do you experience time?

Do you consciously think about how your characters view their passage through time?

4 thoughts on “How do your characters experience time?

  1. How I understand time is embedded in my journal writing, however, it was late in my journal writing (late in life) before I understood time. Since I’m not a “writer” I do not develop characters, I simply relate my personal history vis-à-vis my continuing understanding of time. Thanks for the opportunity to comment on the subject that I have given considerable time too. Here’s a bit of how I understand time:

    Conceptual thought, then, is time dependent, time and problem solving become co-dependent realities. In physics, time and space are considered fundamental quantities (i.e. they cannot be defined in terms of other quantities because other quantities – such as velocity, force, energy, etc – are already defined in terms of them). Thus the only definition possible is an operational one, in which time is defined by the process of measurement and by the units chosen.

    My view of time is in the tradition of Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, in which time, rather than being an objective thing to be measured, is part of the measuring system used by humans. It is this kind of time (time of mind) that is embedded in space-time. As an “act of becoming,” our conceptual thought processes have been omitted from the physical universe because we have so far not learned how to express “time of mind” either linguistically or mathematically. But to condemn the “act of becoming” as illusion oversimplifies the world in which we live. “Time of mind” exists in human thought processes and everything else is a secondary effect of this process.
    Thanks again!

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful and interesting comment! I’m family with Kant’s work, but not Leibniz’s, so I’m glad to have someone new to encounter and explore (and the connection between linguistics and math/science is fascinating, even if I don’t have the background to understand it completely).

      Best wishes,

  2. Thanks for the Zimbardo link–I hadn’t seen that before, though I’ve seen some of those ideas circulating. (RadioLab did a segment on measuring the pace of different cities–literally timing how many steps people take in a given distance, and extrapolating many things from there.) RSA Animate always does a great job.

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