This post–one of a series connecting my research side (sociology) to my fiction writing side (a high fantasy novel presently entitled Remnant Magic)–discusses ways that sociology’s identity theory can help with character creation. Using identity theory can make characters, arcs, and conflict more complex and root them more organically in how humans interact with each other and society.
What Was Bugging Me
Lately, I’ve been feeling the gravitational pull of the vast mass of writing I’m not doing. I’ve been busy getting the PhD and associated research up and running, so I don’t (entirely) begrudge my lack of writing, and yet… I’m never not aware of it, either.
You often hear at the start of a PhD that you need to treat it as your job. Schedule it. Do the hours. Don’t procrastinate. It’s good advice. But it got me thinking that a lot of people write with a full-time job—the PhD is a good excuse but not an iron-clad one. So, while I was scheduling, I scheduled some writing time and decided I would use it to write my first novel.
Early on, I was brainstorming my protagonist’s motives/stakes, as described across a number of videos presented by writer Rachael Stephen on her YouTube channel.
What did my protagonist want or need?
My novel idea had come to me as a character fragment, so I knew, roughly. He’d been expected to be very successful during his adolescence, but hadn’t been—and he found himself an adult without ability, success, or prospects. The novel follows his efforts to find out what went wrong. That makes for a clear enough character goal, but I wanted to brainstorm a few more wants/needs to apply towards subplots and gave it a red hot go.
Nothing I brainstormed had any kind of personal or narrative specificity. Sure, he might want to go to the Moon; he might want anything at this point. Though I’d done a little worldbuilding, I didn’t know enough about him or his place in the world to constrain his choices, making the products of my brainstorming too random to be useful. Clearly, I needed more worldbuilding. I just wasn’t ready to go full-Tolkien, yet. I asked myself, what was the least amount of my world I could build to yield the most information about what my protagonist wanted? It occurred to me identity theory—which is fairly central to my PhD research—suggested a helpful answer.
A (Very) Brief Summary of Identity Theory
Identity theory is a substantial collection of ideas about how individuals become who they are as they interact under the influence of society and how those interactions go on to shape society in return. The theory belongs to the sociological perspective known as symbolic interactionism, which originated in the early twentieth century with theorists such as Charles Cooley, George Mead, and Herbert Blumer.
Cooley shared the idea of the “looking glass self”—who we are was the product of how we believed we were seen by the people who mattered to us and how we responded to the feelings our beliefs aroused in us, such as pride or shame.
Mead saw society as a constantly evolving structure comprising solutions to group problems. The self was a product of interaction within society. As the self allowed an individual to understand and adapt to how others saw them, it was a necessary tool for the cooperation which, in solving shared problems, created society. As it’s often put, society creates self creates society.
Blumer gathered these and other views into a perspective he formalised and named symbolic interactionism. The name reflected his assertion that society was made up of interaction, and interaction was guided by shared meanings—symbols. Individuals assembled those symbols into a self. Consider how people informed by feminism or notions of chivalry might differently see the meaning of a woman approaching a closed door—and how the consequent behaviour of each would reflect who they are and who society expects them to be. Over time, social interaction changed shared meanings, expectations, and behaviours, and, collectively, the society made up of those things, which shaped the selves coming into being in that society in new ways. For Blumer, because society and the self caused each other, neither had greater meaning or importance than the other.
Identity theory, developed by Sheldon Stryker, took this base and formalised it even further, intending to make all these ideas more useful in making theories about how society and human interaction worked. Stryker positioned his theory in something he called structural symbolic interactionism, which assumed that society and the self weren’t equal—society came first. People were born into societies, and their identities developed within structures of power, economics, and every kind of inequality. These structures differentiated society such that people couldn’t be said to interact “within society”. Rather, they interacted within the relatively small social groups to which they had access, within roles defined by those group—limiting the change that could be worked through interaction.
According to identity theory:
- Each of us has a self made up of multiple identities, roughly at least one identity for each social group to which we belong—we might be any or all of a Student, a Parent, a Worker, a Patient, or countless others.
- Our social groups are made up of roles—positions within the group associated with a set of expectations and meanings—a Worker must value punctuality, honesty, hierarchy, the will of customers, and behave accordingly.
- An identity is just a set of role expectations, and associated meanings, that we’ve taken into our self.
- Each of our identities has a quality called salience—how significant it is to us generally and in any given situation.
- The strength of our ties to a social group, the importance of their judgements of us, the severity of the costs to us if we lose face in front of them, add up to our commitment to that group—identities associated with high commitment tend to have the strongest salience.
- Our identities are organised into a salience hierarchy, high to low—a high salience identity has a greater chance of shaping our behaviour than a lower salience one.
Our self still comes into existence through our perception of our social interactions. But that self is made up of a number of identities, each created by our performance of roles that satisfy the expectations of particular social groups. When we enter a social situation, we judge what’s going on using the meanings and expectations of the identities in our salience hierarchy, the most salient identity is chosen, and our behaviour in the situation proceeds accordingly.
Someone happening upon a child crying by the side of the road will understand the situation and respond differently depending on the identity which has the most salience to them at that moment. A parent might nurture. A police officer might investigate or bring the child into the system. A bully might push them over and walk on laughing. If their self boasted all three identities, then their commitment to the social group behind each one would create a salience hierarchy, and the most salient identity would win the day.
Applying All That To Creating Characters
So, there I was, trying to work out the minimum worldbuilding I could do situate my protagonist in his world enough that I could work out what motivates him.
Identity theory is helpful here because what an individual wants and how that shapes what they do is the key concern of the theory. The answer it provides is also pretty simple. What does my protagonist want? Well, to what social groups does your protagonist belong? What roles exist within those groups? To which groups are they most committed through important social ties and severe consequences if they fail to meet role expectations?
With those questions in mind, I went to my worldbuilding documents in Scrivener and determined what social groups were implied in what I’d already come up with. For example, my protagonist belonged to an organised group of magic-users. I developed that group in more detail, including roles and expectations associated with various factions. I brainstormed groups in broader society that would support or oppose the magic-users or any of their factions. That led to the creation of various political, religious, and socioeconomic groups, and their factions, roles, and expectations. I refrained from too much detail, at this stage—just enough to give me a basic understanding.
I returned to my character brainstorming. What did my main character want? I’d thought he wanted to know what went wrong with his adolescence. But that desire grew from his high commitment to the social group that had expected great things of him and rejected him when great things hadn’t materialised. What he really wanted was to earn his way back into that high commitment group. Since they weren’t, strictly, worth his time, the fact that he wanted this so badly at the start of the novel implied his character arc—an internal shift from believing he’s no one if he’s rejected by that group to a realisation that he belongs to a better group now, and that group deserves his loyalty.
Narratively, identity theory suggests I should create scenes that diminish his ties with the first group and increase his ties to the second group (and the consequences if he loses face before them). And I will, going forward.
At the same time, I was now able to establish other identities residing in the protagonist’s self. His father is problematic in the plot, and so “son” will have salience in a number of scenes—and shedding his commitment to that identity will also be crucial to the outcome. He also has identities associated with religion and with a group of outcasts. Each of those identities suggested smaller arcs shifting his levels of commitment and shuffling his salience hierarchy.
He’s become a more complex character than he might otherwise have been, as he now has a range of identities that might be the most salient in any of the situations he encounters. While I’d have arrived in a similar place by writing up a character biography or resume, this method was more systematic and, in my opinion, produced a clearer and more intentional sense of the relationships between aspects of his character and their relationships to his position within different areas of his world.
Protagonist vs Antagonist, Protagonist vs Protagonist
I applied the same process to my antagonist, with similar results.
In doing so, I noted that conflict between the antagonist and protagonist could be found in their commitment to incompatible social groups, or to roles within individual groups that had incompatible role expectations. For example, the antagonist’s highest commitment is to a role within a group that values ends over means, while the protagonist belongs to one that most highly values good works in pursuit of duty. In shared situations were those identities are salient to each of them, conflict is inevitable.
The same applies to a single character and internal conflict. When the identities in a character’s salience hierarchy are associated with incompatible role expectations, then situations invoking those identities will put the character in conflict with themselves. Reconciling those incompatibilities or shedding one of the identities becomes the basis for a character arc.
I can only hope any of that proves useful. I found it so, and it’s enough, really, if I’ve only managed to contribute something to my own process. But I put it here, just in case. Do let me know if you find it a helpful perspective.