Identity and Character Development

Identity and Characterization

Identity and Character Development

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The Texas Tribune Fest in Austin is one of my husband’s and my favorite events, assembling hundreds of the country’s top thought leaders, politicians, academics, journalists, and other experts—from all political and ideological persuasions—to three days of always interesting, always thought-provoking, often illuminating conversations and panels.

Don’t worry…this post may sail along the surface of political waters for a moment, but we’re not diving in—and I promise it ties back to writing.

The annual TribFest is true to the deep-diving, broad-ranging, nonpartisan approach of its parent organization, the Texas Tribune, with a wide array of diverse viewpoints and thought. What it does not have is extremism, rancor, or shout-fests. It strives to present many viewpoints in an atmosphere of respectful civic engagement and it largely succeeds, on the panels as well as among audiences.

Some years are tougher to attend with an open mind than others. 2016 was challenging. 2020 was a son of a bitch—and 2022 was no picnic. Even this year—so weary as all hell of the current political environment that I actually had no enthusiasm for the event at all—my mindset changed once I got there, and I left, as I always do, heartened by the atmosphere of rational civil discourse and with my mind expanded by some measure.

One of my favorite panels this year was an interview podcast host Kara Swisher held with former House Representative Adam Kinzinger (you can see the recording here), a former Tea Party rising star who defied his party in key votes and lost his political career because he was convinced that evidence demanded he defy the party line.

“People fear losing their identity even more than I think they fear death.

Adam Kinzinger

Kinzinger said he knew of dozens of other fellow party members who shared his certainty and perspective—and yet almost all voted along party lines despite their true beliefs.

Why? Swisher asked.

“Identity,” Kenzinger said simply. “People fear losing their identity even more than I think they fear death.” (You can see the exchange at 15:16 of the recording.)

How Identity Dictates Character

Identity is a powerful force, and Kinzinger acknowledged that its pull in politics is addictive.

But most of us hold some cherished identity in many parts of our lives that deeply influences our beliefs, behavior, and action: whether it’s our role, our background, or some core element of our selves.

Our identity may be political (Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, etc.); professional (politician, businessperson…writer); personal (based on family, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, etc.); or even the way we may define ourselves through our self-perceived personal traits (“a compassionate person,” “a renegade,” “unlucky”)—or any combination of these identities and others.

Identity is a powerful driver of the choices we make, the way we conduct ourselves, how we react. Perceived threats to our identity can lead to depression and anxiety, anger, existential unrest, and even violence, and the study of identity theory is a robust one across multiple disciplines.

It’s also deeply relevant to storytelling and characterization.

The Risks of Relying on Identity in Characterization

Identity can be an excellent tool for creating memorable, believable characters and arcs, establishing strong stakes, driving the plot, creating suspense and tension, and more.

But basing characterization on some strongly held aspect of identity can risk stereotypes, clichés, and one-dimensional characters. It can lead to labeling, a reductive way of presenting character that relies on facile external descriptions of who they are, rather than painting them as fully fleshed, complex, believable human beings: “She is selfish”; “He’s a tech bro”; “She’s a cutthroat defense attorney.”

These are shortcuts to characterization that may tell readers something of who the character is, but only on the most superficial, removed level. They don’t deeply engage us; don’t offer the depth, specifics, and granularity that bring characters to life on the page, that make them unique. And they reduce your characters to a single element of who they are, rather than the richly complex amalgam of factors that create an individual.

Identity can be used to deepen and develop your characters’ motivations, what drives them, their personalities and proclivities.

Using Identity to Create Rich Characters and Stories

But identity can also be used to deepen and develop your characters’ motivations, what drives them, their personalities and proclivities:

For example, Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry features a female chemist in a time when few jobs existed for women in her field, and even fewer offered the same opportunities, respect, and equality accorded to men. This identity is a key factor in not only her situation in the story, but her backstory and “wound,” her interactions with others, her reactions, what’s at stake for her throughout the story, and it’s a powerful, key element of her motivation for every action she takes in the course of the plot.

Threats to your characters’ identity can be a potent way to motivate their actions and behavior:

In Liane Moriarty’s Her Husband’s Secret, the titular husband sees himself as a good man, husband, and father, and his inability to reconcile that with an action he fears threatens that identity sets the events of the story in motion. It pulls the rug out from under his wife’s identity as a loving partner in a happy and healthy marriage and sends her on her journey in the story as well, both plot-wise and arc-wise.

Identity can also serve as a powerful spine for a character’s arc:

In Jessica George’s Maame, for instance, protagonist Maddie sees herself as a dutiful daughter, feels she is socially stunted, and has bought into her mother’s exhortations to keep family matters within the family in a way that has inhibited her from opening up to others or pursuing an independent life of her own.

Over the course of the story, as she examines these identities, readers see how she changes as she lets go of beliefs about herself she had accepted as intrinsic parts of who she is and begins to remake her identity in her career, her friendships, her independence, her family role, and her romantic life.

Identity can be a key basis for story and plot:

Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake unravels the complicated and ultimately false identity of a mother her two children were certain they knew, and subsequently undermines their own identities. In Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, the two protagonists’ shifting identities are the driver of each of their stories, the choices they make, their reactions, and their ultimate fates.

Identity in Your Own Life

I’m a big fan of using ourselves and our own experiences (internal and external) to inform our writing, especially in creating three-dimensional characters.

What is your own identity—can you define it: in your roles, your life, your personality? Start noticing where you may “characterize” yourself as a certain thing—a freethinker, a good listener, a mom, a screwup, etc.—and how it affects your actions, your reactions, your behavior, your choices, your relationships, your self-image.

Pay attention to your reactions when your identity is called into question. I recently wrote about a bout with perfectionism that made me question several aspects of my identity—as an editor, as a wife, as a daughter, as a friend—and realize where feeling I’d “failed” in achieving perfection was undermining my perception of those identities and creating anxiety and depression in me.

Notice how you react when your identity may feel threatened. One reason I love the TribFest is that it forces me to look at my own biases, assumptions, and illusions rooted in my identity that may be keeping me from seeing an issue fully and can make me feel reactive and defensive. That allows me to reset my default reactions and be more open and receptive—which hopefully is a small step toward depolarization.

Read more: “Using Assumptions to Strengthen Your Storytelling
Identifying Your Character’s Illusions to Develop Plot and Strengthen Character Arc

You don’t have to try to change any aspect of your identity, necessarily—just notice. Pay attention to how it impacts your mood, your state of mind, your self-image, your actions and behaviors, your thoughts. This kind of observation about yourself and your own nature and responses can lend enormous verisimilitude, complexity, and depth to the characters you write.

How does your identity affect your life, authors? How does it impact your choices, your self-image, your mood? How did it lead you to your current situation in life? And do you notice how you react when it’s questioned or threatened? Do you consider identity in creating your characters and moving them through your story?

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