Self-Identification and Character Development


As I dip my toes into various hobbies and careers, I’ve made a life out of random self-identifications. Sometimes I’m an actor, sometimes I’m a director, sometimes I’m a manger, sometimes I’m a designer. And that’s just in my theatre life! Sometimes I tell people I’m a writer, sometimes I tell people I’m the manager of a lighting company, sometimes I tell people I’m just a hack who tries to be funny on panels. My point is, there are a lot of ways that we identify ourselves, and those self-identifiers vary depending on situation. 

The same is true for our characters. Bubba the Monster Hunter behaves differently (believe it or not) when he’s in a strip club than when he’s in a church. Not much differently, but there’s generally less tipping in church. But it’s important for us as writers to keep a handle on how our characters identify themselves depending on the circumstances. Do they sometimes take the lead, and sometimes fall back? Do secondary characters take over when we move into “their” world? And that leads to a balancing act, of course, because while you have to keep a firm handle on which character is driving the story, sometimes a secondary character needs to be the focus for a little while. 

Note to self – this doesn’t work so much when you write in first person. Try third-person POV when you want to play with this. 

I recently finished reading Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle, the four-book series that started with Eragon (fans of the book pretend there was never a movie with the same name, much like some fans of Star Wars insist that there really were only three movies). Inheritance, the fourth book, was very centered on the concept of a character’s “true name,” that name that embodied everything about a person, all their flaws, all their good qualities, all their experiences, hopes and dreams. A true name isn’t a new concept, of course, it’s also featured prominently in the musical CATS (and yes, I know it was based on T.S. Eliot). But the concept is important because as writers we need to keep a handle on the true name and nature of our characters, so that we know not just how we identify them in various settings, but how they identify themselves in various settings. And then we can use that understanding to see how the characters self-identify to explore what role they take in a scene. 

And yeah, we kinda have to do this work for all of the characters. At least the non-cardboard ones. The ones that exist solely to fill out a trope you might be able to skip the work on, but most of the time you’re going to have to crawl inside the character, get to know their hopes, dreams, fears and failures before you can truly write them. Because before you can tell us anything about anyone, you must know what they see when they look in a mirror. 


11 comments to Self-Identification and Character Development

  • Great post, John. Speaking as someone who mostly writes in first person of late, I think this still works, just in a slightly different way. The POV character would be viewing the other characters, acting in the ways they perceive themselves and the roles they’re assuming, through the lens of his or her own role and perception. And then responding accordingly. So many layers!

  • Lightbulb moment! Thanks so much for this. Here’s what I am getting (related only to my own writing)
    Jane’s character is changing. So is Beast’s. So is the way they perceive each other.
    And that means their true natures are being revealed as they evolve. And so do their titles, and *true names*, though I don’t use that concept in the series. This helps me so much!

  • Razziecat

    It’s spooky how topics on MW so often reflect what’s going on with my writing! 😉 I’ve been working on some new characters, trying to discover what makes them tick, and realized that one of them sees things a very specific way. I’m just starting to write short scenes, as an exercise to learn about these people, and I can see that how this person acts, and reacts, depends a great deal on his self-knowledge.

  • Self-identification is one of the most interesting concepts in character creation, really. Once you realize someone has a specific image of themselves, you can really understand why they react so strongly to things that threaten that self-image, even, and especially, if they know the threat is true.

  • MaCrae

    I created a secondary character a while ago just for something different, a little side jaunt. I wanted to show a different side of my MC and how she would react in a different setting. *Several months later* This little “jaunt” turned into a huge, major part of the story with tons of MC development. I had no idea that was going to happen. I just liked the dynamic between this secondary (who might no longer be a secondary)and my MC. My MC’s garbled sense of self identification is coming somewhat into the light for her after this exploit and could shape what she’s going to do next.

    Isn’t writing SO exciting!?!?! HNNNG!

  • Love this post! I second Razziecat about how often posts on MW tap directly into what I’m thinking about/struggling with in my own writing. I know you said that this is best with 3rd person POV, but this post hits on what I’m trying to do in my first person POV. My MC does have a clear self-identification, but her self-identity is based on what others have told her/molded her to be. As the book progresses, she’s cutting through the history of what she was and finds out what she really is. Thanks, John! I think I just articulated what I need to do!

  • kwlee

    This is very topical. My current WIP involves an unnamed Vampire who has been around for so long and has used so many aliases that the only way he can identify himself is by his title. His title and his work are the only handles he has left to his identity, until events occur and he has to remember and become the person/people(?) he once was to figure things out. I’ve thought about his ‘True Name’, which is inconsequential to the story itself, but would probably help me as a writer nail it down and flesh out his thoughts and desires. Thanks!

  • I think I get it. My current WIP involves a girl named Bethany. Her old bad influence friends know her as Betty. Her family calls her Bet (which is very suiting giving what they think of her) & everyone else in town puts her in this box of normal and calls her Bethany. Yet the fey community calls her Black Star which she has tattooed inbetween her fingers. She feels pulled in all directions to please everyone but has yet to truly know who she is. She’s an unknown to herself.
    I love the concept of names changing who you are. Its like your formal name at work and your nickname at jome.

  • @WaitforHim–

    Or like your online handles. We have an identity for each context we inhabit, and it’s interesting to see how people divide up their contexts by name.

  • ajp88

    This is one of the big themes important to my characters’ arcs in my novel. My idea is that I take various characters with certain archetypical roles in the fantasy world: the thief, the assassin, the seer, the magician, etc. And in order for their arcs to full turn and the characters become better representations of themselves, they have to stop self-identifying as their roles. So, for a long time Jaycen’s POV will say things like, “the thief said,” “the thief lunged,” etc. Until one day that stops and they see themselves as simply a person and not a role. For some characters, that means the plot and their own actions systematically dismantle the reasons for them assuming the role in the first place (like the removal of the family Jaycen steals to provide for).

    Well, at least that’s the plan that the reader is just supposed to discover on their own.

  • Life is easier when you are someone else’s something: daughter, wife, mother, son, husband, father, plumber, warrior, bartender. You (or the character) only have to satisfy the others’ expectations. Good stories aren’t about easy.