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.

We’re All Fictional – Goffman and Characterization

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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.

Writing and the Sociological Imagination

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Sociology has a lot of treasures for writers of fantasy and science fiction. One of the most useful, helping with building both worlds and characters, is the way of looking at things known as the sociological imagination.

Students of sociology encounter the idea of the sociological imagination on day one. In his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, US sociologist C. Wright Mills asserted that sociology concerned all the ways in which humans lived in the world and therefore needed to focus more acutely on how history and social institutions impacted the daily reality of lived human experience (Dillon, 2013, p. 228). The sociological imagination was simply a way for sociologists to see and critically assess the world to help achieve this focus. In contrast to psychological approaches, which might attribute a person’s problems to behaviours originating in their mind, the sociological imagination makes an explicit link between personal problems and social structures (Eckstein, Schoenike, & Delaney, 1995, p. 335)

The sociological imagination sees a person with a problem and wonders what social structures or institutions, what histories, constrained their ability to act in order to bring them to their current straits.

A criminal might be in prison because they’re inherently criminal, because it’s the way the are. Or maybe poverty limited their legitimate opportunities. Maybe discrimination did. Maybe poor nutrition compromised their physical or mental development. Maybe they were raised with a cultural imperative to risky behaviour. The sociological imagination poses complicating questions about situations and then guides sociologists in discovering answers that illuminate the human social world.

It’s a perspective which can just as easily complicate a fantasy or science fiction writer’s worldbuilding, in a good way.

When populating a created world with social institutions—and in this context a social institution is any reasonably persistent element of social organisation that meets some need of the society, such ast family, the education system, or the system of government—the sociological imagination reminds that these institutions have context and inter-relate. It prompts you to look at your awesome invented society and ask how did things get this way? What keeps them this way? Who resists and how? A good example in fantasy is Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The War of the Ring is greatly complicated by distrust between the races. And Tolkien’s world has a long and detailed history of betrayals, moral falls, wars— usually mediated by the treachery of Morgoth or Sauron—which gave rise to racial distrust. Gimli’s distress at being asked to enter Lothlorien blindfolded is a personal problem with roots in the First Age.

Societies tend to be self-maintaining. That is, their institutions support and perpetuate their belief systems. In Western society, the education system is prone to making students fit for employment. This is actually one of the ways that pervasive capitalism reproduces itself. Truly pervasive beliefs tend to fade into the background, becoming “common sense.” Victorian determination to separate the spheres of home and work put women in the home but by the 1950s they belonged there and always had. The social imagination makes common sense visible and subjects it to critical scrutiny, often revealing its role in enforcing normality. When worldbuilding, it can be useful to ask yourself what invisible, common sense normality your social institutions are selling and who in your society is most struggling to buy in, how they resist, and how the institutions apply pressure to quell resistance. Doing so can create a richer and more internally consistent world and identify areas of natural conflict that your characters need to confront.

Sociological imagination also provides a path to work backwards from some aspect of your character to the construction of a more detailed world.

If your character is ejected from society and must become a rebel, this can be considered their personal problem. Sociological imagination suggests asking, What structural issue explains this personal problem? After all, why a rebel? There are plenty of outsiders who eke out a non-rebellious existence within their community. Perhaps something disrupts the possibility of peaceful existence for your character? If the government regularly raids poor neighbourhoods to press gang idle young people into military service and if your character refuses to fight for a government they hate, then fleeing to the rebellion makes sense. Your world will grow as you determine why the government conducts these raids, how the social institution carrying them out functions and perpetuates itself, and what “common sense” beliefs makes this acceptable to most citizens.

Sociological imagination exists to shine a light on the way individuals and the social world relate. Used to develop worlds and characters for fiction, it helps to identify your world’s naturally plot-worthy characters and to ensure that they and their conflicts become real products of their milieu.
Dillon, M. (2013). Introduction to sociological theory: Theorists, concepts, and their applicability to the twenty-first century (2nd;Second;2; ed.). Hoboken: Wiley.

Eckstein, R., Schoenike, R., & Delaney, K. (1995). The voice of sociology: Obstacles to teaching and learning the sociological imagination. Teaching Sociology, 23(4), 353–363.

McCartan, L., & Gunnison, E. (2004). The IQ/crime relationship: An extension and replication of previous research. Journal of Crime and Justice, 27(1), 61-86.