Identity Theory and Character Creation

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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.

And failed.

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.

Final Thought

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.

2018, Looking Back, Looking Forward

WheelIn tarot, the Wheel of Fortune card (glance to your left) is a reminder that we’re all bound to a wheel that never stops turning. On top today, bereft tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow… who knows? Change is the only constant.

The wheel has spun wildly for me all year. In some respects, it’s been one of the worst years I can recall. The whole world has seemed deranged at times, but there have also been some hard-to-bear personal catastrophes. Yet, I also finished my BA Honours (Sociology) halfway through the year with a killer grade that reflected hard work and the support of an awesome advisor and lecturers. Towards the end of the year, I was also accepted into JCU’s PhD program starting (very soon) in 2019. What’s more, I was awarded a really generous scholarship.

Oddly, given some of the stuff that’s been going on, as I look back on the year, it’s the lack of writing progress that stings. I keep trying to establish a routine, improve my skills, level up—and I keep sacrificing writing to my other priorities and remaining, frustratingly, fairly static in the skills department. And, apart from a close call or two early in the year, no sales!

As I embark on my PhD research, it seems clear I’m going to have to master the whole competing priorities thing once and for all if my writing is to stand a chance. Based on history, if I were my writing right now, I’d be feeling a wee bit nervous.

Still, positive thinking types are fond of telling us that giving up is the only failure, so I’m thinking not giving up is step one. So that’s the first thing on my 2019 to-do list, and I’ve ticked it off.

That done, I watched a webinar on writerly goal setting presented by Joanna Penn on her The Creative Penn YouTube channel. I also read around a bit, mind-mapped, and did some thinking.

For many years, I’ve focused on short stories because I suspected they were friendlier to a time-poor schedule. Also, I’ve felt I needed to crack short fiction before really trying a novel. I begin to suspect neither of those things is true—and if I don’t make a serious effort to produce a novel soon, I never will, and that would be a sizable deathbed regret. Memento mori, and all that. So, I decided on a concrete goal:

In 2019 I will write the first draft of a novel.

For accountability, I’ll post here a little more often, writing about what happens the goal (and the PhD research, and life) come into contact with the aforementioned Wheel. (Don’t think about roadkill. Don’t think about road kill. Dang.)

Merry Christmas, 2018!

Xmas 2018
Photo credit: Jutta M. Jenning on Foter.comCC BY-NC-ND

Novel Writing Tools

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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…

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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.

Review: “The Massacre of Mankind” by Stephen Baxter

massacre-of-mankindThe iconic tripods rampaging across the cover tell you fairly succinctly that The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter is an authorised sequel to H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds. I’m normally indifferent to new authors revisiting old wells (pardon the pun). Moreover, The War of the Worlds is among the first science fiction novels I read and it so thoroughly blew my mind that I re-read it until my copy disintegrated. I expected to be disappointed by The Massacre of Mankind and I doubt that I’d have bought without Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover. As it turned out, I enjoyed Baxter’s sequel.

Briefly, the novel reports the events of the second Martian invasion of Earth thirteen years after the first. The narrator of Wells’s novel is reduced to a minor character named Oliver Jenkins, while the narrator of The Massacre of Mankind is his sister-in-law, the journalist Julie Elphinstone. When the Martians return, they have adapted their biology and technology based on their first experience with Earth and this time they have their sights set on the whole planet.

Baxter does an incredible job of building the post-Martian world as an alternate 1920s inflected by humanity’s first encounter with aliens and their efforts to adapt abandoned Martian technology. There are fun cultural details such as Charlie Chaplin’s being famous for his portrayal of a character based on Wells’s Artilleryman. And there are grim historical alterations such as World War I becoming Germany’s long solo war against Russia using Martian technology acquired from their increasingly militaristic allies, the British.

If the novel has a flaw, it would have to be pacing. The early part of the book moves quite slowly as it sets everything up. An exacerbating issue throughout the novel is its nature as journalistic memoir written after the fact by Miss Elphinstone so that even impactful scenes from which she’s absent are delivered as dry reportage.

But once the Martians put in appearance, the book becomes gripping. They’re portrayed as cunning and well-prepared conquerers and some of the set piece scenes of Martian attacks on cities around the world are marvellous—particularly, for me, Constantinople and Melbourne.

I suspect the ending will divide people, but I found it acceptable. In some respects, the ending isn’t the point. The point was to revisit for the twenty-first century Well’s critique of Imperialism—that just because you believe there’s a ladder of creation it doesn’t mean you’re standing on the top rung—and he does that skillfully.

In short, well worth a read.