Using Time Orientation In Your Writing

I never got around to blogging yesterday.  I was in a marathon meeting all yesterday morning and out most of the afternoon because I hyperextended a nerve.  I am, apparently, just that talented.  Was going into plank pose and something went crunch.  Yippee.  The good news is, though it hurts like an SOB at the moment, I should be fine by next week.

Anyway, what I WANTED to talk about yesterday was this concept I read about by Philip Zimbardo (he of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment) dealing with time orientation.  Here’s a really cool video that talks about the theory–it’s kinda long but fascinating:

Okay, so according to Zimbardo’s Time Orientation theory, there are basically 5 orientations (6 according to the video, but 5 for the purposes of what I want to talk about and that are measured by his Time Orientation Inventory):

1) past negative: a general negative, aversive view of the past (“I think about the bad things that have happened to me in the past.”),

2) present-hedonistic: a hedonistic risk-taking attitude toward time and life (“Taking risk keeps my life from becoming boring”),

3) future: goal planning, and achieving (“I am able to resist temptations when I know that there is work to be done”),

4) past-positive: an attitude optimistic, and positive toward the past (“I enjoy stories about how things used to be in the ‘good old times'”), and

5) present-fatalist: a hopeless attitude toward the future and life (“My life path is controlled by forces I cannot influence”).

~from Psychology Today

One of the many things that struck me about this theory is how it can apply to our characters and our writing.  Time orientation is a fundamental aspect to a person.  It’s something that’s pretty stable (much like attribution style, which I’ve talked about before).    It’s going to impact how your character thinks and how your character behaves.  And, this is the kicker, it’s going to provide potentially GREAT FODDER for inter-character conflict.

Say you have a present-fatalist and a future oriented character.  They’ve just been presented with this awful situation–say their company is downsizing and they’ve just found out that they’re both on the chopping block.  The present-fatalist feels wholly not in control of the situation.  Nothing he does is going to change the fact that he’s about to get laid off.  Imagine Eeyore.  The future oriented character is bummed but sets out to change the boss’s mind, taking on extra work and going above and beyond to make boss realize that she is indispensable.  This is not a particularly exciting example, but you get the point. They both have different attitudes that influence how they act in a given situation.  It is a subtle thing but something that can really deepen your characters.

If you’re interested in reading more about the concept, Zimbardo wrote a book about it, called The Time Paradox.  My copy arrives tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Using Time Orientation In Your Writing

        1. it’s not really our separate attitudes about past, present, and future. It’s that we each tend to live in one of them. Those who have a present focus live in the moment (for good or bad) without focusing on the future in terms of goals or consequences.

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