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On Identity, Authenticity, Relationships, and Our Characters

On July 12th, writing about her latest novel, The Lost Girls of Devon, Barbara O’Neal remarked here at Writer Unboxed [1] that one of the story’s themes concerned “growing into the person you were meant to be. That’s not always easy for women, especially when they become mothers.”

We often speak here at Writer Unboxed about how stories become more meaningful when they touch on issues of identity. We feel deeply moved by stories that demand the main characters answer questions such as: Who am I? What kind of person do I intend to be? What must I change to become more like the person I want to be?

Put another way, in such stories the main character (and perhaps others) answers the call of destiny, becomes her true self—“the person she was meant to be.” She throws off the shackles of a false persona; or she rises above the shallow, unchallenging, meaningless life she’s allowed herself to pursue; or she overcomes or moves beyond the restrictive forces holding her back, even entrapping her—and claims the high ground of authentic selfhood.

We typically respond to such story descriptions with an affirming, even heartfelt nod, as though we implicitly comprehend what such statements mean.

Do we? Or have we just become overly comfortable with certain turns of phrase that are actually misleading?

For example, is there a true, fully formed, non-temporal “I” that every character is constantly striving to recognize, in the hope of fulfilling that selfhood’s promise and answering its demands?

Though she may only see it “as though through a glass darkly,” is her ideal “I” nonetheless there, casting shadows on the wall, beckoning the character forward so that she may fulfill her destiny?

If she has strayed from that path, for whatever reason—motherhood, in Barbara’s example—has the person she was “meant to be” remained in some sort of suspended animation in the recesses of her psyche all this time, waiting to emerge from the shadows once circumstances permit?

(Note: Barbara will speak for herself later in this post. I think you will find her comment interesting.)

This notion of an objective, ideal self represents the Platonic-Kantian view. It proposes a transcendent world of ideal and eternal truth that we can know the way we know mathematical and logical truths—pristine, unadulterated, indisputable. It speaks of things like “essence” as the core truth of who we are as human beings. In theology, this essence is typically referred to as the Soul; in certain corners of psychology, as the Self.

Modernity has tended to cast a jaundiced eye toward this sort of idealism, and is increasingly wary of such notions as a “true self,” “essence,” and other metaphysical hobgoblins. What’s taken its place in the realm of identity is the idea of self-realization, a belief that we do not discover our true selves so much as create them.

Pico della Mirandola, as early as the fifteenth century (a hundred years before Shakespeare), considered men capable of fashioning their own destiny—”the molders and makers of ourselves.” This was revolutionary at the time, when men and women were born into a certain station and died there, but now it’s generally accepted as the natural path of human maturation.

It’s sometimes said that we live in the Age of Authenticity, where an individual is expected to “march to the beat of his own drummer,” pursue his life path as he, not others, sees fit. Only then can he be “true to himself.”

Traditionalists, such as those in the Platonic-Kantian camp and many religious thinkers, find this idea of self-creation misguided. Without strict moral guidelines in particular—the kind provided by religious traditions, for example—self-realization can come to excuse all manner of excess, depravity, even cruelty, all in the name of “finding oneself.”

Non-traditionalists respond that there is nothing in self-realization that inherently discounts concern for morality, social strictures, and so on. But the individual remains free to explore which set of guidelines feels most natural. (For more on this debate, see Selfhood and Authenticity [2], by Corey Anton.)

Rejecting the idea of a concrete, “immortal” Soul or Self doesn’t require denying the notion of a constant striving for something truer, more honest, more authentic—and more fulfilling. It reflects both an escape from a past or present we no longer see as rewarding and a movement toward something else, something we believe or hope will be better.

In The Compass of Character, I refer to this longing as the character’s yearning, rooted in an ever-present sense of incompleteness, or lack. I consider it one of the fundamental truths of what it means to be alive, and characters based on real people need to reflect that longing or risk appearing slight, contrived: “plot puppets.”

But if characters are not yearning to fulfill their destiny, live up to their true selves, “the person they were meant to be,” what are they yearning for? A raise, a promotion, a bigger house, the next rung on the ladder? Is that really sufficient to compel them to endure great hardship, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and mounting conflict to succeed?

In our stories, for this yearning to matter, there must come, at some point in the narrative, a powerful sense of ownership, of responsibility on the character’s part for whatever she longs for, and the sense of self it reflects. Where does that powerful sense of ownership and selfhood come from?

I sometimes remark that characters who are not compelled by some notion of destiny or purpose often need a “gun to the head” or a “pot of gold dropped at their feet” to evoke that unyielding sense of commitment. By that I mean they must either have some clear idea of the benefit of acting, or greatly fear the consequences of not acting, with sufficient clarity to compel them to do something.

But, ironically, what we often observe in human behavior—sadists, narcissists, and psychopaths excepted— is that people are often far more readily and powerfully compelled into action not on their own behalf, but for the sake of others.

We give up far more easily on ourselves, especially when no one will know we let ourselves down, than we do when we recognize others will be affected by our action or inaction.

Some of this, as in motherhood, reflects the need to juggle competing demands. It can also, however, reveal something more insidious, an oppressive bias imposed by culture to subsume one’s personal desires for the obligations of family.

It may also reflect the power of shame—the fear of losing status in the eyes of others whose respect we value or affection we cherish; and so we conform to their desires.

Some of it speaks to guilt, our awareness that harming others, passively or actively, is wrong; and so we put aside “selfish” wants for accommodating ones.

Most importantly for our purposes as fiction writers, however, is that some of this effect, where we value the benefit or harm to others over our own, speaks to our recognition of the intrinsic interconnectedness of one’s own fortunes with those of others.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby remarks that one of the greatest mistakes beginning writers make in developing their characters is imagining them in isolation.

It’s not just in stories this mindset makes itself known, of course. Consider the rugged individualist who thinks his only obligation is to himself and his “freedom.” Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed this affliction long before dime novels and Ayn Rand elevated it to the status of sainthood. De Tocqueville called it the Atomist mindset, and considered it a peculiar and problematic aspect of American society, describing its adherents as follows:

“They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

As appealing as the lonesome cowpoke may be, particularly to a certain subset of American readers, he’s about as real as the unicorn. Even wanderers travel town to town. And the most fervent hermit remains aware that someday a stranger may appear at his door.

Need I add: this mirage of the solitary individual is traditionally far more appealing, even addictive, for men than women.

But if interconnectedness with others is true of action (what I do), if how I behave cannot be separated from my relationships with others, why not identity (who I am) as well?

Is it really inaccurate or unsatisfactory to say that identity is not some essence I possess but is instead relational—that, just as with our actions, my idea of who I am is intrinsically connected to how I view myself relative to others and how they view me?

To borrow from the seemingly pristine realm of mathematics and logic—what is the “essence” of the number seven? Is there such a quality as “sevenness” that it possesses? Or, on the contrary, is it known primarily because of its relation to other numbers: it’s the natural number between six and eight, it’s the fifth prime number, it’s the solution to the equation 11 – 4 = ? and so on and so on.

Extending that question to selfhood—is there an essential “Davidness” I am looking for? (I know I left it somewhere. Maybe it’s with my keys, or my glasses…)

Or am I instead trying as best I can to honor a sense of how I should live based on notions of honor, integrity, courage, compassion, honesty, etc., that I have inherited from influential people in my past, from my reading, from history, from my life among others, and so on?

By saying identity is relational, I don’t mean that it is accommodational, a collection of compromises, or that who we are merely reflects what others demand or expect from us.

Rather, our identities grow and adapt on the basis of our interactions with others, especially those who mean a great deal to us. And our better selves or idealized selves often reflect how we’ve been viewed by people we’ve known and respected, even admired, and who saw something worthy of respect in us.

This came home to me in a vivid way once I began teaching. More and more often, I began to weigh how I performed as a teacher against the example of my math professors, who were not just wonderful instructors but admirable men. I found their example resonating with that of my father, who possessed a quiet dignity and integrity I admired and aspired to imitate. I used their example as a means of determining the best course of action in any given moment: What would the men I admire do?

I’m sure this sort of identity-formation is also clear to all of us who are in a rewarding relationship, or have an abiding friendship or connection to someone else we cherish. The limits of what we would do for such a person are commensurate to our fondness, respect, and sense of obligation to them. And our sense of who we are shifts accordingly with that awareness.

Similarly, in a bad relationship, we often find ourselves shrinking to the level of what will allow us to keep the peace or maintain the relationship for fear of what will happen if we don’t.

One last example: it isn’t just the competitive instinct that makes me want to raise my game when I read a novel that I consider impressive. As Saul Bellow said: “Writers are readers inspired to emulation.” The excellence of the novel I’m reading touches that part of me inspired to be the best writer I can be.

As noted above, this doesn’t mean the Best David Corbett exists in some objective way among the other Platonic Ideals in the Museum of Personal Perfection—or in God’s mind.

The same is true of my characters.

Again, I don’t mean to suggest that characters are confined by their relationships to others. Self-creation is meaningless if it does not permit us to reject what others would have us do—or who they might prefer we be.

For a good example from fiction, consider Robbie Turner in Ian McEwan’s Atonement:

The son of Grace Turner, a servant who lives on the grounds of the Tallis estate, Robbie has been raised with the gracious financial support and personal sponsorship of Jack Tallis, the head of the upper-crust family. That sponsorship has permitted Robbie not only to obtain a good education but to attend Cambridge, where he excelled. When determining what career to pursue, he evaluates the various options afforded him. He once pursued landscape gardening, but this now seems no more than a “bohemian fantasy, as well as a lame ambition.” His Cambridge studies focused on literature, and though he did well the prospect of pursuing it further seems little more than “an absorbing parlor game.” Rather, his “practical nature and frustrated scientific aspirations” have led him to an “exercise of will”—he has chosen to study medicine. “He would take lodgings in a strange town—and begin.” Above and beyond the instinctive appeal of this vocation is the fact he has made the decision on his own, rather than having it proposed by “an ambitious headmaster,” a “charismatic teacher,” or his patron, Jack Tallis, all of whom have proposed other avenues. He feels he is finally his own man: “His adult life had begun.”

Those who know the story are aware that this newfound sense of self gets shattered by adverse results. But one thing remains constant despite every ordeal—his love of Cecily. And in a very significant way it defines who he is and what he wants from his life, even in the face of disaster.

What this means in practical terms is that to understand what my character is striving for in the story—the kind of person she wants to be, the way of life she hopes to enjoy—I need to also envision who else will be included in that life, and who has helped shape her idea of who she should be, how she should act, and what she should value, while still retaining for the character the agency to defy, move beyond, or rise above those influences or rely on some other intrinsic self-awareness—like Robbie’s “practical nature and frustrated scientific ambitions.”

When constructing the character web, I’ll need to identify the other characters who have inspired her, believed in her, helped gird up her confidence—or chastised her for slacking off, accused her of doing wrong. I’ll need to identify who instilled in her those nagging voices: Do more. Try harder. Don’t quit. You have it in you.

Similarly, I’ll need to know who if anyone taught her it’s okay to settle for less, let someone else do the hard work, surrender when the path ahead just seems too difficult. I’ll need to identify whose voices are echoing in her head saying: Better a live dog than a dead lion. Is it really worth it? Nothing is so important it can’t wait until tomorrow. It isn’t all about you.

I’ll also find it helpful to know whether any of those characters are in the present-day story; if not, which characters that are in the story echo those internalized voices, those past influences.

This is why secondary characters are never secondary. They exert moral, psychological, and emotional pressure on the main characters that serve to help them answer those questions we find so compelling: Who am I? What kind of person do I intend to be? What must I change to become more like the person I want to be?

Returning to the example of Barbara’s main character, Poppy, I can’t help but think that simply rewording the issue eliminates the confusion (a common theme in contemporary philosophy, by the way). Accordingly, what if instead of the notion of “the person she was meant to be” we reword it as a dream of life she abandoned once she became trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, but recovered once she decided to escape?

Here, as promised, is what Barbara herself has to say:

I agree that we have to create the life we want during the days and nights of our lives, but in the books I’m writing, the struggle is about women engaged in trying to make those lives against the roles and pressures of society/family. In the case of Poppy, the character in The Lost Girls of Devon, she runs away from her daughter and husband to go to India and pursue the life she wants.

And at the risk of starting a bigger conversation than can be answered in this single discussion, I do believe the struggles of women to achieve a life of meaning are much more difficult, still, than the struggles men face. I am almost constantly writing about this now.

A dream that’s been put aside, and the person who might have instead pursued that desire, doesn’t have to be a Platonic Ideal to exert its influence on a character’s current sense of self; it need simply be remembered. And characters, like their authors, exist in time, remembering what has come before while continuing to grow, adapt, make choices, face the consequences—creating themselves, and their lives. Not just alone, but among others.

Does your main character have some notion of “the person she was meant to be”? How does that differ, if at all, from the person she wants to be? Put differently: is she discovering her true self or creating it? In either case, what is holding her back from fulfilling that pursuit?

What secondary characters are crucial to your main character’s self-realization? Who encourages or helps guide them? Who holds them back or undermines them? Who, if anyone, actively opposes their desire to “find themselves”?

Would you like to comment on Barbara’s “bigger discussion” about how the struggles for a life of meaning are much more difficult for women to achieve than men?


About David Corbett [3]

David Corbett [4] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [5], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.