Personal Identity

One of my favorite characters on Heroes is Gabriel Gray. Sylar, his alter ego, is one of the most powerful characters in the show in terms of abilities. In a fight he can easily put down any of the other characters, with the possible exception of Peter. But Sylar isn’t the real character. He’s an aspect of Gabriel. Sylar is the manifestation of Gabriel’s ability, both the good and evil parts of it. It’s that struggle with his identity that makes Gabriel one of the more interesting characters.

Many people struggle with their identity. What got me thinking about this recently is the various news stories on my twitter feed about the It Gets Better project, among others in a similar vein. There’s been a serious outcry of support for LGBT and other similar crises of alternative identity Teens are struggling with.

Teens deal with this in less dramatic (and in some cases life-threatening) ways as well. Stories involving teens are often about finding one’s identity and fitting it in the large context of one’s life. But it’s not just teenagers that struggle with it. Most everyone I know does. I certainly do. It’s part of life. Right now I’m going to talk about the former, finding one’s identity.

One of the ways in which I have found a context for my own identity is through stories, and the stories that have the most impact on me are the ones that helped shape my identity. Writing is another way I shape who I am, and it is a context in which I can explore who I am not. The nice thing about stories is that they are safe, at least to some degree.

Francine from Strangers in Paradise deals with very human questions of identity. She grew up with one set of values, a very familiar set you will recognize from American 50’s culture. She expected to be a housewife when she grew up. The problem is that reality isn’t that obliging. The men in her life aren’t able to fit the role she needs. However, her best friend, Katchoo, is both able and willing. Francine’s quest for identity is one of the major plots of the series, and in my opinion the more interesting one. It is possibly the one that speaks to my personal experience the most and that may be why.

I could continue with examples. Calliope in Middlesex, Lou in The Speed of Dark, Xander in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. and so on. Trying to figure out who they are is a major point for all these characters, and what makes them interesting as characters.

I like to bring these questions of identity into the characters of my own writing as much as I can. I am not always successful, but it is certainly something I think about and becomes a major part of many of my more interesting characters. The Gods of Reed is about the search for Caleb’s identity by several people. Another story, NaNoWriMo from two years ago, is about a woman choosing between the hopes of her younger self and the identity she actually carved out for herself.

One of the aspects of character driven stories that I’ve often failed at is empathy for the characters from the reader. Most people who watch the show can empathize with Xander, the clumsy geek trying very hard to find a place socially, but largely failing. Francine, who’s desired identity is very familiar and understandable in our culture. It starts in a familiar place. Caleb, on the other hand, is the sort of person no one likes and becomes less likable as the character progresses. (Not to say this type of protagonist can’t work, but that’s a different essay.)

This struggle for identity hits us close because we’ve all gone through it, or perhaps are still going through it. It’s something we can identify with and latch onto. When we meet Sylar, we have no empathy for him. He is a monster, a bogeyman no one can stop. He becomes human when we are shown Gabriel, a man struggling with his own identity. That struggle has made him do terrible things, and still does, but that makes him no less human than the rest of us. He has power, but that power becomes a liability in his struggle for identity. This is what makes him interesting rather than merely a stand-in for Evil. It drives the character forward, hopefully toward a better understanding of himself, and he brings the audience with him.

Note that I have only talked about internal identity strife here. Another interesting aspect is applying one’s identity to the world at large. This is related, and often intertwined, but something I will talk about at another point.

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