Directions & Timetables

Pick a DirectionGranted, “directions & timetables” sounds like the world’s dullest fantasy role-playing game. (Though, in this game I’m pretty sure my character class would be a half-orc perfectionist/procrastinator with an alignment of chaotic indecision.) Still, it’s actually a fairly straightforward description of what I’ve been up do.

In my last couple of blog posts I was concerned that my writing had been directionless. I’d picked novel writing as a direction and set out with the determination to tick that bucket list item within an inch of its life.

Of course, at that time, I was very much in the midst of my end of year break from university—to the extent that such things exist while working your way through an honours year, when you really ought to be working on the terrifying Lego of your thesis whether a semester is officially unfolding or not. I was simply procrastinating my thesis and exercising my denial superpower to pretend I could make writing-goal decisions in isolation. Well, ha.

As 2017 shuffled towards its inevitable anti-climax and 2018 promised to haul itself from the radioactive meltdown of the old year to begin its own rampage, ignoring my thesis by covering my eyes and pretending I was invisible proved less and less practical. At the same time, my efforts to pull together a novel-writing project hit a weird, writers-blocky paralysis that was both frustrating and depressing.

I feel foolish in hindsight, because it is my experience that an inability to write is most often rooted in a subconscious awareness that you’ve taken a wrong step, which shuts you down until you walk it back to the point of divergence and course-correct. But, I didn’t understand the problem at the time, and it did contribute its own sour flavour to a fairly stressful start to the new year.

A week or so ago, I began to get a handle on things, starting with the realization that I was torturing myself about two major, year-long projects but doing too little about actually achieving them. I was living the parable of the boiling frog, suffering in the heat rather than jumping to safety. It’s a good thing I’m pretty, because I am not smart.

BullseyeI decided to research goal-setting and time management. For starters, I’m good at research, so it was a nice, non-threatening but practical way to kick things off. Because I’m more a writer than most anything else, I confess I went looking for information among sites offering this sort of advice to writers. My first (very fortunate) stop, was The Creative Penn,  the website of author and entrepreneur Joanna Penn, and from there her YouTube channel  and a particular video addressing how to set writing goals and manage time in the context of needing to meet other time-consuming commitments. It was, without hyperbole, perfectly what I was looking for.

It was so perfectly what I was looking for that I’ve included the various links above in order to explicitly add them to the list of invaluable writing resources that I began compiling here last blogpost.

While Joanna’s video essentially revolves around the old time management idea of filling a jar with big stones first, then smaller ones, then sand, where the jar is time and the various rocks are the demands on your time, she explicates the idea thoroughly, with specific applicability to writing, and considerable and contagious positivity. I took notes. And then I set about applying them to the problem of my colliding immovable thesis and unstoppable writing.

One thing became immediately apparent when I dared to finally turn and face my thesis. It really is immovable. The deadline is not my deadline to alter, and when that day comes, as it will soon, I will either be ready or I will fail. I was obliged to acknowledge that the thesis had primacy, however much urgency I’d been feeling about my writing lately. So, although I’d initially taken Joanna Penn’s advice to mean I should declare writing the novel to be my “big rock” goal and schedule it first, by the time I finished examining the demands on my time I realized the “big rock” was the thesis, and writing would have to fit around it.

It was a cheerless realization, but it was also the course-correction I needed to end my paralysis. Knowledge is usually better than cosplaying an ostrich.

My written goals became:

  • Two-Three Year Writing Goal: Complete and submit a novel.
  • One Year Study Goal: Complete research and hand in a high quality honours thesis.
  • One Year Writing Goal, First six months of 2018: Write three short stories
  • One Year Writing Goal, Second six months of 2018: Complete pre-writing/planning for first novel

Obviously, the writing goal for the first six months of this year appears fairly paltry and unambitious. But I stand by it. This reflects my general state of paralysis at the time of planning vs my need to set a goal that was achievable, that would not incur so much pressure that it detracted from the “big rock” goal of that immovable thesis. And, to be frank, if I end the six months with three stories then that will be progress for me and I will be happy.

My next step was to ask what major, specific tasks needed to be completed in 2018 to accomplish these goals, and when did they need to be accomplished. This, I won’t lie, was the time consuming part.

Writing was relatively straightforward, and I quickly used Outlook calendar to schedule necessary preparation. For example, I set aside a day to brainstorm story ideas so that I wouldn’t run out of ideas during a busy semester. I then scheduled a daily hour and a half writing session enabled by getting up earlier.

For the thesis, I first consulted with my thesis supervisor to get a better idea of where I was and what I faced. At her suggestion, I scheduled the rest of January for completing coding and data analysis, and set aside daily time for that, plus daily time for thesis-related academic reading—something which has suffered a lot during my procrastination phase. For a while there, my entire theoretical framework section was looking to be, “I don’t know, Goffman and Stryker and stuff.”

My thesis supervisor also asked for a rough timeline of when I would be handing in first drafts of the various thesis sections and chapters. By now, I was on a scheduling roll. I quickly worked out the required word counts for each section, and what percentage those word counts were of the whole. I worked out how much time I had between the end of January and two weeks before the known deadline for the entire first draft (that two weeks being my safety margin—I have learned to build in safety margins). From that, I applied the word count percentages to the available time to arrive at how long I could spend on each section, and turned that into date ranges. Et voila! Timeline… which I scheduled into Outlook, with daily blocks of time for actual thesis writing.

Another of my supervisor’s suggestions was to schedule my weekends as actual free time, as I’ve had a persistent tendency to simply abandon recreation while university is running, and it’s had a bit of an impact on my stress levels and health. So I re-jigged my various schedules to do just that. Weekends! The prospect of guilt-free weekends was my first inkling that time management had powers I had not previously suspected… I also penciled in some time for recreational reading, a blessing almost as great as weekends.

So last week was my grand experiment with goal-setting and working to a daily schedule.

There were ups and downs. A thing is hardly a thing in its first week of existence, and a novice planner is never going to foresee everything. When various scheduled items tripped over their feet and fell down, I tried to be flexible, to honour the spirit of the schedule by doing a little of everything I had planned for that time-frame, then returned to the ideal schedule when I could. It worked out.

In the first half of the week I accomplished most of the planning and organization described above. Working to my daily schedule in the second half of the week allowed me to further accomplish:

  • Writing 3,500 words of a new science fiction story.
  • Reading six short stories.
  • Coding 700 pieces of text towards my January coding/data analysis goal.
  • Reading 4 academic articles related to the thesis read.

And having a weekend has given me time to schedule the odd writing-related but not actual-pen-on-paper task, such as catching up my blog, and doing some critiquing.

Again, no one’s going to nominate me for the most accomplished human of the week, but I’m very pleased with that. It certainly represents progress away from paralysis. A satisfactory proof of concept.

I’m quite excited to see how it proceeds.


Novel Writing Tools

Photo on


So, I’m writing a novel with fierce and determined intent. (Or with a healthy dose of fake it until you make it. Hopefully, that’ll add up to the same thing.)

Right now, I’m focused on pulling together data for my honours thesis, which means my writing efforts have been a) slow and b) dedicated to organising the novel as I would any other project. I’ve been reading up on novel writing to give myself some idea of how the process will (or should) differ from writing short fiction. I’ve also been looking at different software or online writing tools that might help.

Those I use, or plan to use, I’ll discuss here. I figure, a few mini-reviews of such toolbox items might be useful to others, and will certainly be useful to me when I (eventually) reflect on the process of having written the novel and compare my expectations for various tools and methods against actual outcomes.

This post, I’m going to discuss two sources of writing information that I’ve found very useful and return to often—Brandon Sanderson’s novel-writing lecture series on YouTube, and a fantastic book on writing by Patricia Wrede.


Brandon Sanderson’s Lecture Series

MistbornBrandon Sanderson is one of the leading lights of modern epic fantasy. His Mistborn series is the very exemplar of what I would like to write in terms of genre, style, length, and devotion to world-building. He’s also a writing machine—and if you don’t believe me, glance at his website, where the header features a graph of how close to completion his four concurrent projects are!

There are worse people to learn from!

Evidently, Brigham Young University agrees, as Sanderson lectures there on writing speculative fiction. While it’s difficult not to experience pangs of envy that there are university students learning their craft from Brandon Sanderson, it’s mollifying to know that an entire semester of these lessons has been filmed and uploaded to YouTube for the greedy eyes and ears of those of us not so blessed.

They can be found on the Camera Panda channel and it’s well worth subscribing and revisiting them often until you’ve learned all you can from them.

Each lecture covers different parts of the writing process, from ideas, through structure, outlining, and character development, to writing, editing, and the business of writing. Sanderson’s method for developing an idea is relatively simple but flexible, and explicitly seeks to find the original and cool in your novel-to-be. His discussion of the business is practical and rooted in his considerable experience as a bestselling novelist.

Conveniently, the information accompany each lecture lists the details of topics covered in that video, plus where in the run time those topics can be found.

Hand on heart, it is an astonishing resource for people wanting to write a novel.


Wrede on Writing, by Patricia C. Wrede

Wrede on WritingPatricia Wrede has written a good many enjoyable fantasy novels, but may be best known for her brilliantly entertaining YA fantasy series The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

At the risk of hinting at my vast age, I first encountered Patricia Wrede on Usenet, where she frequently posted writing advice to the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition. Wrede staunchly defended the idea that there were no writing rules, only guidelines, and that the standard wasn’t whether something broke a “rule” but whether it worked. Then she would provide a host of different methodologies so those reading her advice could pick what worked for them. While Usenet has atrophied with the rise of social media, a good chunk of her advice from that time has made it into her book, Wrede on Writing.

The book is divided into sections, from the basics, through the “not so basics,” to expert guidance on the business side of things.

Every single chapter is a gem. However, I do have a favourite. Her discussion of viewpoint is a masterpiece of clarity, detailing every major form of viewpoint and how to use it. Each explanation is accompanied by a short scene which recounts the same characters experiencing the same event using that particular style of viewpoint. If there’s a more lucid and edifying description of viewpoint anywhere, I’ve never encountered it. If you’re still at the stage of wondering about viewpoint, or simply where you want or need a refresher sometimes, it’s worth the price of the book all by itself.

Of course, it’s also well-worth spending time on her blog, Six Impossible Things, which is similarly a fount of writing wisdom.

Where I’m At and Where I’m Going…

Photo on

Sometimes, you need to stop and take stock. Life happens, time catches you by surprise, change socks you in the jaw, and you just need to stop, look at your feet, look back, look around, and make a plan or two.

Where I’m At

Well, I’m drifting. Three months since my last blog post, two months after the one before that. Blogging isn’t my first priority, but neglecting a blog is certainly a sign—like the wind dropping just before a movie sailing ship falls into the doldrums.

Oh, there’s been some movement.

I’ve finished the first semester of my sociology honours year and taken a bit of a break. Recently, I’ve been in the data gathering phase of my thesis research. My topic ended up focused on relating identity theory to public punitiveness with the aim of improving the public’s satisfaction with criminal justice policy (reflecting my sociology/criminology double major). It’s my first original research, of course, and, though the scope of an honours thesis is limited, it’s been challenging.

I’ve written a couple of short stories and sent them around to the markets. One story was shortlisted at Andromeda Spaceways, but was ultimately rejected.

My social world has taken a bit of a hit, reminding me that nothing is permanent except change. And my self-image has stirred uncomfortably at the approach of a landmark birthday; there’s no pretending I’m permanent, either.

So… movement… but not much to show for a year, either.

Where I’m Going

Well, I sometimes wonder. But my plan necessarily focuses on study and writing.

I already have a substantial plan for study, as that’s a necessity if you hope to end an honours year with a thesis actually in hand. Let’s pretend study will take care of itself.

Writing is the thing. I continue to struggle to make time for it, to my ongoing and deep frustration. University must take precedence if I want all that hard work to pay off, but I do believe I can do better.

There have been two core frustrations:

  • I’ve not been writing enough to practice and improve my skill set, leaving me good enough to know I’m not particularly good, but not good enough to do anything about it.
  • I’ve been writing short stories despite wanting to write a novel, because short stories are bite-sized chunks that fit into narrow slices of available time. But neglecting what you want to do in pursuit of grim practicality is soul-destroying.

With change and mortality firmly in mind, I’m going to stop short stories for a while to focus on my first novel. Rather than dither and procrastinate, as I’ve too often been prone to do with writing, I’m drawing on my university skill set to pursue the novel as an organized project, no different from my thesis—planned, scheduled, actively pursued. I don’t know what the novel will be, yet, or if it will be any good. There may be false starts. But the goal is to produce a finished, novel-length work within eighteen months.


To keep myself on track, I’ll be posting progress to the Townsville Spec Fic Facebook group.

And, I’ll blog the process here in, probably, terrifying detail. If the novel equates to my thesis, then this blog will represent my field notes. In the end, I hope to have mapped my own process in a way edifying to my future self and anyone else who chances to read it.

Doctor Who Series 10 Finale: Not a Deus Ex Machina

Cyber Scarecrow
Image from The Doctor Falls, BBC

Series 10 of Doctor Who recently culminated in a stunningly good two-part story comprised of the episodes World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. My unreserved enjoyment of these episodes as near perfect television story-telling counts as my full disclosure, as I’m about to defend them and don’t want to give the impression that only logic is in play, here…

Note that here be the dragons of copious spoilers, so stop reading if you’re trying to avoid knowing stuff.

Within minutes of the airing of The Doctor Falls, and since, comments have appeared online that the episode failed and ruined the finale because a significant plot point was resolved by a deus ex machina. Specifically, the Doctor’s assistant, Bill, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, has been turned into a Cyberman through the machinations of the Master and suffered horribly, but at the bleakest moment of failure, she is saved by a near-omnipotent character from earlier in the season, the Pilot.

As most everyone knows, by now, deus ex machina is a critical term that literally means “god from the machine,” and refers, to quote the website Literary Devices, to an author’s solving “a seemingly intractable problem in a plot by adding in an unexpected character, object, or situation” in a way that seems contrived, as if “the author must resort to something that he or she did not set up properly plot-wise.”

Superficially, this doesn’t seem a million miles from what happened when the Pilot saves Bill, then, at Bill’s request, removes the Doctor’s body from the battlefield to the safety of the TARDIS, where, unknown to Bill, he will begin to regenerate. I can understand where the criticism is coming from; I just don’t agree with it.

For starters, the Pilot doesn’t actually resolve any intractable plot problems. The story question here is, Will the Doctor defeat the machinations of the Master and the rise of the Cybermen? That question is resolved purely through the actions of the main characters, their struggles and their considerable sacrifices. Missy brings down the Master and seemingly dies for her efforts. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole save the humans from the Cybermen, and all three understand when they make the necessary choices that the cost will be their lives, or at least their lives as they’ve known them. Not a whisper of deus ex machina there.

Nor does the Pilot resolve Bill’s story question. Bill’s story question is explicitly stated in part one, World Enough and Time. It is: Will Bill survive the Doctor’s rash attempt to test Missy’s newfound goodness? The answer turns out to be: No, and furthermore she will suffer an unfathomably lingering and painful death before sacrificing a tortured half-life in support of the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Cybermen. That is, I would argue that Bill’s story is resolved already by the time the Pilot makes an appearance. She died. In slow, awful stages, her ongoing twilight existence as a cyber-revenant not withstanding. When the Pilot comes, it isn’t to deliver a resolution that Bill is beyond needing, but something else—so still not a deus ex machina.

We’re all critics, these days, and we all have access to a toolkit of critical idiom. Tweet your horror that Steven Moffat committed deus ex machina and very few readers will scratch their head in confusion. But we’re also now inclined to be a culture of hammers who see everything as nails. Working from a checklist of possible literary flaws will guarantee that you often find them, but it will also blind you to the truth that there are other idioms, other toolkits, and I think that’s been the case with The Doctor Falls.

I suspect that an episode which begins with the imagery of crucified cyber-scarecrows, in a story riddled with people sacrificing themselves to redeem others, amid characters who are dying and being reborn through cybernetic intervention or Time Lord regeneration, that the toolkit in play here might be that of religious symbolism.

And at the end, it’s not a deus ex machina that the Pilot brings Bill. It’s grace. It’s the gift of the universe to those who have given their all in pursuit of doing the right thing, and failed because humans are flawed and fail, but sometimes they’re still saved.

There are episodes enough of Doctor Who where the Doctor solves an impossible problem by waving his sonic screwdriver at a contrived Plot Resolution Machine. This isn’t one of them.

This is more like Frodo, who came undone on Mount Doom only to discover that his sacrifices to that point had put in place the elements necessary for providence to finish the job.

It’s a reminder, in dark times that I think could use a few more such reminders, that hope is not foolish because sometimes, however improbably, good things happen.

It’s grace.

Of course, enmeshed as we all are in barbed wire cynicism, this will strike many as far worse than a deus ex machina. It’ll be saccharine or cheesy or whatever curmudgeonly dismissal occurs to them. That’s not my problem. Struck me as joyous and uplifting, and I cheered as soon as I recognised the Pilot on the battlefield and understood how her presence had been set up.

I’m just saying, it wasn’t a literary failing, it wasn’t a deus ex machina and it ruined nothing. It was a feature, not a bug.

Bill simply got the ending she deserved, and I’m glad.

Life in the Old Blog Yet…

Photo via VisualHunt

You could be forgiven (are forgiven, I forgive you) for thinking this blog dead, the silence having become both long and deep. It’s not!

Now, I had been trying to put my writing on a more organised footing, integrated with my studies, rah rah life balance. For me, social media was a part of that effort. Alas, after I lost a few work days to Cyclone Debbie just as last semester’s assessment really kicked off, and since last semester was also the final semester of my BA, I was obliged to kick life balance to the curb and go all in to get through. No half-arsing your final semester, because there’s no next semester in which to patch everything up and keep going.

This means, to be clear, I’ve not written anything in ages. My last story is half-done, a lifeless semi-file languishing on Dropbox. And I’ve very much felt the not writing, a piercing ache at the back of everything I’ve done since stopping. But I made the choice and lived with it.

It was the right choice. The semester was a real challenge in more ways than one, and I wanted good results. But the semester is also now over. That’s the reason for this post: to Frankenstein up and declare, “It’s alive!”

Hopefully, the writing will soon follow. I’m mentally tired, I am, and I fear my engine may have stalled. We’ll see. One resurrection at a time…

Now That’s Progress…

Photo via Visual hunt

Well, after yesterday’s pervading gloomy sense of failure, I put in some serious labour on my university work yesterday afternoon to clear the decks for today. My cunning plan being to spend today writing until my knuckles ached.

So I did.

I scrapped all the work I’d done on the short story so far–figuring some of my difficulty with it was my subconscious telling me I was doing it wrong–and started from scratch.

The new version retained the main character’s voice, but switched from first to third person. Two existing scenes lost an event and I merged them into a single slightly longer scene with a more logical progression.

And, in two long sessions, I managed a total of 2700 words. By my standards, that’s not a small number! I’m very pleased with that progress. Now I have a much clearer idea of how to progress the story from where I am.

Needless to say, it was also marvelous to actually devote a full day to nothing but writing. Feels like Christmas!

Frustrating Week So Far

Photo via Visual hunt

Five day into having committed to make progress on the SF short story, I’d be inclined to report that the outcome has mainly been frustration.

Technically, I’m now four scenes in, but that represents little real progress. It doesn’t count a first scene written before determining where the story should actually start, then discarded. Monday and Tuesday produced the bulk of this week’s new words, 1500 or so. Yesterday was mostly rewrite of those scenes followed by 230 new words (i.e. barely any at all) and today was rewrite of rewrite ending when I ran out of time with no new words.

To be quite honest, I’ve gone quite flat in general. I’ve not been reading apart from material needed for my study, and study itself is proceeding like a crawl over broken glass. I’ve applied self-discipline to honour my various to-do lists, but it’s all quite joyless.

On top of which, it’s frustrating. If I sacrifice writing time for study, and study doesn’t go well, then what’s the point?

And I really do miss lost writing time. I need the practice. In one of his video tutorials on writing, Brandon Sanderson talks about reaching the point where you’re good enough to realize how bad you are (to paraphrase), and I’d say that’s where I’m at. It’s certainly its own kind of frustration. I feel a strong compulsion to improve, to level up past that point, but it’s not going to happen when my practice consists ten words a day wrenched out between other obligations.

Stupid other obligations.

Sunday Circle

Photo via Visual Hunt

Peter M. Ball, over on Man Versus Bear,  is hosting The Sunday Circle for followers of his blog—in which people answer three questions about their current creative efforts.

  • What are you working on this week?
  • What is inspiring you at the moment?
  • What part of your project are you trying to avoid?

It seems fun, reflexive, and an interesting means to pin a bit of accountability to what you’re up to, so I’m giving it a try.

What are you working on this week?

In general, I’m currently trying to write a series of different short stories. The goal is to go fairly quickly (by my slow standards) and without necessarily thinking too much about future submission, with a view to improving skills and experimenting with viewpoints, styles, genres, and such. Essentially as discussed on a recent Writing Excuses podcast.

Next week, specifically, I’m hoping to progress a short science fiction story with the working title of Good Wolf Bad Wolf. It’s space colony SF looking at the exact moment someone decides to resist a cosy kind of oppression.

What is inspiring you at the moment?

I’m at the start of my final semester of a BA(sociology/criminology), and that inevitably involves a lot of academic reading on what makes people and societies tick. That’s where a lot of my inspiration is presently coming from. When reading about subjectively strange social phenomena, it’s hard not to stop and think, “Hey… what if you wrapped that behaviour around a world? A person? A well-resourced villain?”

What part of your project are you trying to avoid?

The writing. I am avoiding the writing. The, you know, crucial bit. Well, I’m not avoiding it, really, or even genuinely reluctant to engage with it. But the aforementioned study is requiring a lot of my attention as the first round of assessment approaches, and that creates a powerful pressure to enclose my writing time to the service of my study time.

Yet… I know it’s also excuse making. I know perfectly well I can devote an hour per day to writing without impacting study, and that’s enough for progress. Given that my confidence is a bit low at the moment, and I’m finding writing unfamiliar things a bit difficult and awkward, I suspect my subconscious is trying to nudge me towards easier pastures. And I’m not having it!

7 Visits From the Ghost Of Writing Past


You can’t swing an antique typewriter on the Internet without hitting a writer giving advice to their younger self.

But it’s not a purely pointless cliche. Writing is a skill-set as much as it is a Mysterious Talent Breathed Into Our Ears By Angels. Stick with it and you learn. What you learn is idiosyncratic but might be of use to younger writers who are stumbling in ways similar to your own hilarious youthful pratfalls.

Heck, reflecting on what you think you might have learned can actually be the moment you learn it.

Writers digest considered it an activity worth putting into a writing exercise. thinks it merits its own social media site.

And recently used it explicitly to advise young up-and-comers.

Tl;dr… I’m jumping on that bandwagon.

So, without further ado, seven things I’d tell younger self if I met him and he let me get a word in edgeways…

  1. Don’t wait. Second post on this blog pretty much explains this one. If you love writing, prioritize it. I chose a more “practical” route, and it vanished like a soap bubble.
  2. Write a little every day. Don’t tell yourself you’ll put off writing until you have “enough time” to devote to it. You’ll never have much more time to write than you do right now. And you need the ongoing routine and practice to improve. So write even, a little, as often as you can.
  3. Finish things. Again, it’s how you learn. I used to abandon a story whenever it went awry. Took me ages to learn I was mucking up my starts because I hardly ever saw them in the context of a completed story where it was more obvious that I was generally starting stories too early.
  4. Perfect is for saps. I say “awry,” but I used to abandon stories because I knew I couldn’t make them perfect. I used to not submit stories because I knew they weren’t perfect. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” You’re as good as you are, and you’ll get better if you don’t give up for want of perfection.
  5. Don’t worry about rules. Patricia Wrede says this best on her Six Impossible Things blog.
  6. Realize that doubt is just weather. God I’ve struggled with self doubt. Given up on writing. Given up on individual stories. I’ve gone back to stories that wracked me with so much doubt that I pitched them into the bin, and found stuff in them that was so good it surprised me. Self doubt isn’t truth: it’s weather. It will pass. Wait it out.
  7. Mind your health. I didn’t. But writers aren’t disembodied brains, and you will eventually sabotage everything you do if you neglect your physical well-being.

So, that’s my seven. Happy to hear yours below…

Character Motivation and Identity Theory

Photo via VisualHunt

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.


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.


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.