Getting into people’s heads: how and why to fake it

With apologies to David Parnas and Paul Clements.

To truly understand how an incident unfolded, you need to experience the incident from the perspectives of the people who were directly involved in it: to see what they saw, think what they thought, and feel what they felt. Only then can you understand how they came to their conclusions and made their decisions.

The problem is that we can’t ever do that. We simply don’t have direct access to the minds of the people who were involved. We can try to get at some of this information: we can interview them as soon as possible after the incident and ask the kinds of questions that are most likely to elicit information about what they remember seeing, thinking, or feeling. But this account will always be inadequate: memories are fallible, interviewing time is finite, and we’ll never end up asking all of the right questions, anyways.

Even though we can’t really capture the first-hand experiences of the people involved in the incident, I still think it’s a good idea to write the narrative as if we are able to do so. When I’m writing the narrative description, I try to write each section from the perspective of one person that was directly involved, describing things from that person’s point of view, rather than taking an omniscient third-person perspective.

The information in these first-hand accounts is based on my interviews with the people involved, and they review them for accuracy, so it isn’t a complete fiction, but neither is it ever really the truth of what happened in the moment, because that information is forever inaccessible.

Instead, the value of this sort of first-hand narrative account is to force the reader to experience the incident from the perspectives of individuals involved. The only way to make sense of an incident is to try to understand the world as seen from the local perspectives of the individuals involved. Writing it up this way encourages the reader to see things this way. It’s a small lie that serves a greater truth.

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