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The Case for Alter Egos

Photo by Denise Carrasco [1]
Photo by Denise Carrasco

I got an orange notebook today, but not just any orange notebook, because I have a confession to make. There’s someone I really wish I could be—well, some of the time, anyway—Kalinda Sharma, the private investigator on the TV hit The Good Wife.

Kalinda, played by Emmy award winning actress Archie Panjabi, wears sunglasses (sometimes even at night and inside), holds meetings at bars where she drinks shots of tequila, and gets paid four hundred dollars an hour. She has a really cool orange notebook in which she jots down notes as she coolly and calmly grills people. Now I have one just like it.

[pullquote]She’s badass, she’s stealthy, she gets things done, she stays calm and collected and never flinches, she drives really fast and never gets a ticket. She asks amazing, insightful questions, and she has a perfect-sized bright orange notebook…[/pullquote]

It’s no secret—I’ve written about it here on Writer Unboxed [2]—I like the idea of being a spy, and I frequently use spying as a tool to inspire my writing. Sometimes I even wish I’d been a private investigator. In short, sometimes I wish I were Kalinda.

She’s my alter ego. My avatar. These words describe people we’d like to be, people we’d like to be represented by, or sometimes someone we make up as our other self. It turns out I’m not alone in having an alter ego. It isn’t that rare, and it may actually be good for you—particularly in some professions—like writing or entertaining and even in business. I told a friend about this, and she immediately expressed concern. I’ll tell you what I told her. No. I do not think I have multiple personalities. I just sometimes wish I could be someone else. Kalinda.

Performance enhancing

Not everyone’s alter ego is a real person or even a non-self-invented fictional character. Country western singer Granger Smith invented his own alter ego Earl Dibbles, Jr.—first created as a humorous youtube video. Smith has said that Dibbles allows him to think and act outside the box in terms of what he can and can’t do as an entertainer. Beyoncé has spoken publicly about her alter ego, Sasha Fierce, who she replaced in 2013 with a new alter ego Yoncé.

According to Jon Brubaker in an article on entrepreneur.com [3], this kind of branding can be useful for people in the public eye. I’ve never asked any of my well-known author friends, but I’m guessing they’d be perfect candidates for having alter egos used for branding. For one thing, it’s self-protection—we don’t necessarily want people to know us as our private selves or want to expose everything about ourselves in public. An alter ego or public persona can protect us from doing just that. Instead of being ourselves, we can pretend we’re someone else.

In addition, Brubaker suggests, “the right alter ego can be your personal launch point to grow your platform and expand your brand.” It’s a way to attract more attention or boost your self image (like Granger Smith). I am not remotely famous, but I’m guessing that if I were more famous, fewer people would be interested in me if they knew that (unlike Kalinda) I don’t wear swanky leather jackets and cool clothes and sunglasses even inside and at night, and I can’t really pull off the knee-high boots; I wear yoga pants, long underwear, and fleece. And L.L. Bean boots (slippers in the house). I know. It’s a Maine thing.

If you’re an introvert (like I am), Brubaker says that having an alter ego may also allow you to be less inhibited in public and may allow you to do things you might never have considered doing otherwise. If I pretend I’m Kalinda, maybe I’ll be more likely to take more secret photos of people who might be characters in a future book or maybe I’ll shift myself closer to eavesdrop on a conversation that sounds interesting or maybe I’ll even whip out my new shiny bright orange notebook and ask a stranger a highly personal question—like Kalinda often does with a client. I might even represent myself as a private investigator—I never have before—but who knows?

If you could be anyone…

It’s a common question kids bat around, and adults, too, judging from the results I got on Google when I typed in, If you could be anyone who would you be. In fact, I got:

About 310,000,000 results (0.50 seconds)

I read article after blog post after Reddit and Facebook posting about people who have an interest in being someone else…Lady Gaga…Kate Middleton…Batman…Doctor Who. I’m far from alone in having an alter ego. I also found quizzes about identifying what and who your alter ego is and what you should name your alter ego. Even how to create an alter ego.

But why Kalinda?

She’s badass, she’s stealthy, she gets things done, she stays calm and collected and never flinches, she drives really fast and never gets a ticket. She asks amazing, insightful questions, and she has a perfect-sized bright orange notebook for taking notes and jotting down investigation ideas. In my case, story ideas.

Kalinda is not bad at defending herself either—with her fists, with a baseball bat, with a knife, or with a gun—but, no, I’m not condoning violence, nor am I a violent person. I’m just saying Kalinda doesn’t need anyone to save or protect her when she’s in a dangerous situation, and I like that in a woman. I wish I felt strong like that.

Your alter ego could make you a better writer

Imagining I could be Kalinda (or like her) is fun. No, I don’t really think I’m Kalinda, nor do I ever pretend I am in real life (don’t worry, Eliza—she’s my friend who expressed concern). I am still in touch with reality, but having fun by imagining what it would be like to be Kalinda might actually make me a better writer.

In his essay “The Nature of Fun,” [4] David Foster Wallace wrote that when we start out as writers, we write fiction to have fun, but then as we go on we worry about what other people think of our writing. This makes us self-conscious and makes our writing become more about our need to be liked. The solution, Wallace said, is to work our way back to having fun with our writing.

In Play [5], psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown says that highly successful people have a rich play life. Play can be many things: art, music, books, movies, and—yes—alter egos. By playing we can make writing more fun.

So here’s to alter egos and orange notebooks and whatever other props we need. In my case, I’ll be Kalinda. I’ll let my alter ego get the bad guys, smash hubcaps, and retrieve the twenty-thousand dollars hidden in the wall—all while I’m sitting safely in the coffee shop pounding out my next work in progress.

Now it’s your turn to confess. Do you have an alter ego? If you don’t, does this inspire you to consider the possibilities?

About Julia Munroe Martin [6]

Julia Munroe Martin [7] (@jmunroemartin [8]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.