Character Motivation and Identity Theory

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Understanding the motivation of your characters is hugely important to producing an organic plot enacted by people who’ll seem real to your readers.

Over on Writers Helping Writers, the authors of the Descriptive Thesaurus book series tackle the question of character motivation using Maslow’s ubiquitous hierarchy of needs. I’m going to take a sociological crack at it, leaning on the perspective of identity theory.

In an earlier post, I used Goffman’s idea that we present ourselves differently to different audiences to suggest that characters (and people) will have a bunch of different roles and each of those roles make them act in specific ways in specific circumstances. Identity theory takes that a little bit further.

Cooley and the Looking-Glass Self

Before identity theory there was Charles Cooley and his looking-glass self.

Cooley felt that who a person was emerged from a reflective process of imagining how society saw them and feeling good or bad about it (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p. 227).

How this impacts behaviour can be seen in Shakespeare’s magnificent Shylock, who says to those who have treated him with the contempt due an usurer, “Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause; But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” Alternatively, someone who takes pride in thinking they are known for their good works, may often be kind.

Cooley believed that how much a person or group’s perception of us contributed to who we were and how we acted depended on how significant they were to us. If we have no ties to society, if we think society doesn’t want a bar of us, we’re less likely to change our ways to please them. If we believe our wife thinks we’re fat, maybe we’ll cut down on pizza (maybe).

Identity Theory

In identity theory, Sheldon Stryker put forward a way to understand how our relationship to society makes us act differently from the next person (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p.233).

Why do I malinger in the break room while you do all the work? Why does she fight for worker rights while he fires ten percent of his workforce just before Christmas?

One answer is we’re none of us just a single reflection in Cooley’s looking-glass. Our “self” has as many identities as we have discrete social groups with whom we have a relationship, and each of those social groups sees us in a particular way and has particular expectations which we’ll either comply with or resist (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p. 233). Depending on who we’re with, our identity might be Parent, Child, Worker, Sibling, Tough Guy, People Pleaser, or countless others. We contain multitudes.

Which identity pops up under what circumstances depends on the identity’s salience—its importance and relevance—in that situation (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p. 233). It’s a no brainer that at work your Worker identity will have salience. But if you’re unexpectedly bullied at work maybe it will trigger your Tough Guy identity to salience (or your inner Child).

Stryker suggest three related factors shaping identity salience and behaviour(Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p. 234):

  • Commitment
  • Identity
  • Role choice

Commitment describes how powerfully your relationship with a social group compels you to act in a particular identity or role, identity is the pattern of behaviours and expectations making up who you are with a particular group of people, and role choice is a set of relevant behaviours (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, pp. 233-234)

Studies have shown that strong social ties to a group will increase the salience of identities associated with that group and likewise the time and energy spent performing associated roles (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p.234). That is, we most often behave in ways consistent with the expectations of the people who are most important to us.

TL;DR

Just to quickly summarise:

  • Individuals are a mass of identities shaped by their social relationship.
  • Our identities come with a whole set of expectations about who we are and what we’ll do.
  • Which identity has salience in a particular moment is rooted in how numerous and strong our ties are to the social group associated with that identity.

Writing and Identity Theory

Characterization of Heroes

Your character motivations, then, will come down to the clearly definable groups of social relationships in their lives and the relative strength of their ties to those groups.

As a hero, chances are most of their social groups will have expectations of fairly healthy and positive behaviour from them, and that will inform the range of identities making up the hero’s self, and which of those identities might have the greatest salience in a scene or even across a large part of the plot.

If their identity as Husband, Son, Churchgoer, Citizen, all come with expectations of civic responsibility, then powerful identity salience might motivate the character to fight their city’s corruption throughout a long book. At the same time, maybe their childhood friendship with the chief figures in the corruption makes for scenes in which the identity of Friend gains salience, and motivates them to give someone a second chance who doesn’t deserve one.

From this example it’s clear that conflicting commitments and identities are great drivers of story conflict, internal and external.

Identity theory also provides an approach to plotting out a character arc. Changing your character between the beginning and end of your book can be seen as reducing the salience of one or more of their original identities and increasing the salience of one or more of their other identities. Friend to Cop, say, in the example above.

And that can be achieved by allowing events to weaken or strengthen their ties to the relevant social group. Betrayal by their corrupt friend weakens ties to friendships from the old neighbourhood. The travails of fighting corruption together strengthens ties to honest cop colleagues. Identities shift and propel the character arc with them.

An Example: The West Wing and President Jed Bartlet

My favourite example of all this is probably the character of President Jed Bartlet from television’s The West Wing.

His identities are clearly defined:

  • President, in relation to the people of the United States.
  • Husband and father, in relation to his family.
  • Friend, in relation to a great many people who are dear to him.
  • Good Roman Catholic, in relation to the Church, God, and other Christians.
  • Sufferer of Illness, in relation to, variously, the medical profession, his family and friends, the people, and other politicians.

As great as the salience of the President identity is, we’re shown how utterly it crumbles before the salience of family when his daughter is kidnapped. In the course of the series, we see the slow rise of the salience of his illness, and the pain that comes as it conflicts with many of his other identities.

And we’re given the superb masterwork episode Two Cathedrals, in which his identities combine and clash to create perfection. Death of a close friend brings friendship to the highest salience, and the majesty of his identity as President, his moral authority as Good Roman Catholic, and his knowledge as a Scholar all manifest. In a cathedral, God’s own house, in English and in the old language of priestly authority, the President of the United States berates God as a “feckless thug” and it is unforgettable.

It’s proof that the interplay of commitment, identity, and role choice can breath electric life into a character’s motivations.

Reference

Serpe, R., & Stryker, S. (2011). The symbolic interactionist perspective and identity theory. In S. Schwartz, K. Luyckz, & V. Vignoles (Eds.), Handbook of identity theory and research (pp. 225-248). New York: Springer.

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