We’re All Fictional – Goffman and Characterization

actors
Photo credit: minifig via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

In a weird sense, sociology sees everyone as having a slight whiff of fictionality. Which is great, because as sociologists diligently research to understand human character they teach us about who our genuinely fictional characters can be.

Erving Goffman, a foundational sociologist, wrote that behaviours in daily life have a performative character. We are social actors, perpetually onstage, presenting carefully constructed identities to multiple audiences as we perform in the many roles of our daily life (Marwick & Boyd, 2010, p. 123).

As a rule, our performances are designed to persuade—we seek to create a particular impression so we can influence the situation (Goffman, 1959). Bedside manner, for example, is how someone in a medical role persuades a patient to be calm and accept treatment. Or a group of parents may compete in various ways to persuade each other that they are good (or even the best) parents.

This makes us all sound fearsomely inauthentic, yet it’s also just common sense. In your role as a parent scolding a misbehaving child you’re going to act (hopefully) very differently than you do in your role as a friend, four drinks into a night on the town. This is a key idea of situationist theory: that your behaviour arises from context and not some implicit mental characteristic (Marwick & Boyd, 2010, p. 115).

Goffman (1959) adds to this the interesting idea that a role and its associated performance can be triggered by a situation which merely resembles the one where that role is usually most relevant. That is, if you’re a parent and you encounter an adult who is less powerful than you and seems to need protection, your parental role may pop up like a nurturing jack-in-the-box.

And what is the use of this in writing?

Well, my writing software offers a template for character development that includes the question, “What is the character’s role in the story?”

Following Goffman, it seems more useful to ask, “What are the characters roles in the story?” No one has just one role. Your character might be the antagonist, but won’t be just a villain. When not busy putting your protagonist’s feet to the fire, they’ll be someone’s friend, or parent, or business partner, or student, or all of them and more, and each role will bring out different kinds of behaviour.

A character who is determined and ruthless, for example, might be a total villain when preventing the hero from stopping their evil plan, but an admirably fierce defender if someone threatens their children. Alternatively, maybe their will to kill the hero falls apart when the hero’s helplessness invokes their parental role.

In planning a scene, it might be useful to ask:

  • What role will the situation provoke from each character?
  • What behaviours does that role bring out in them?
  • What are they trying to persuade their audience (the other characters) to believe or do?
  • What impression does that require them to create in the minds of their audience?
  • How do the trappings with which they’ve surrounded themselves—clothing, professional accessories, furnishings, even manners of speech—contribute to or detract from that impression?

Answering those questions may help your characters to perform in more complicated, three-dimensional ways.

(Goffman’s work on how people present themselves is a lot more substantial than I’ve covered here, so this is a subject to which I’ll likely return.)

References:

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor.

Marwick, A., & Boyd, D. (2010). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 13(1), 114-133.

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