Identity and Characterization

Who am I? Who are you?

Who is anyone, anyway?

And who gets to define who I am, or who you, or they, or we are? Don’t we get to define ourselves? Or do some believe they have the right to define who we are based on who they want us to be regardless of our own understanding of our identity?

Just what is identity? A single thing? Or a multivariate thing, a thing of diverse diversities, a thing of both intersection and difference?

Are any one of us merely one person with a single specific definitional identity that trumps anything else we might be, or are we, to quote Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ, “a complex being inhabited by a multiplicity of beings in continuous motion”?

How cool is that? Continuous motion! A multiplicity! I can go for that.

We change across time, of course: we grow, we age, we may reproduce, the people with whom we have relationships may change.

But we’re also not definable as any one chief characteristic.

Is the most important thing about me that I am female? That I have white skin? That I grew up in an ethnic household with an immigrant mother, so we ate special food and used foreign words and practiced odd customs? That I write? That I write and read and view sff? That I’m a bit of a jock? That I am a parent? A mother of twins? And a singleton daughter! That I’m Jewish? That I paddle outrigger canoes? That I own a schnauzer? That I’m married? To a cisgendered male? That I have hearing loss? That I voted for (insert secret ballot here)? That I’m an American citizen? That I once (no, never mind, I don’t want to be defined as that).

I would go so far as to say that the only time we are defined as “one specific over-riding identity” is when we are being defined from the outside by people or groups who have a reason to want or need to limit our multiplicity.

So what does this have to do with writing? Or with sff, for that matter? Besides the fact that the words “continuous motion” and “multiplicity” feel very skiffy to me.

What I’m aiming at here is talking about characterization. Who are the characters who inhabit my book, or your book, or the book you’re reading or the film I’m viewing?

Protagonists and, in certain cases, major secondary characters are generally meant to be explored with as much complexity as possible given allowances for the parameters of the plot and the sort of story one is reading or viewing. For the purposes of this post, I will call such characters three-dimensional characters (if done well) or two-dimensional characters (if done less well).

A one-dimensional character is one who has a singular characteristic that defines him/her/it/yeye in the context of the plot.

Sometimes such a character appears in single-dimensional glory out of sheer necessity on the part of the writer: “The guard with the scar slouched into the room.” He’s going to get knocked cold (or killed, or suborned, or tricked) during the breakout attempt, and he has that scar because he must be differentiated from the guard with the sadistic streak who is a total dick who turns out to be on the side of the protagonist despite that and from the guard who reads poetry out loud to entertain the prisoners but is actually an authoritarian true believer ready to kill or be killed for the tyrant. These spear-carriers populate the background of a world, the fleeting red shirts with their moments of life followed by the void of plot inevitability swallowing them whole. Spend too much time interacting with them, make them too complex, and they cease being spear carriers and start developing their own story interwoven with the rest of the narrative and suddenly you find yourself writing the fifth volume of what will turn out to be a seven volume trilogy.

But there’s another kind of character I run across in my viewing and in my reading—and, yes, in my own writing, if I’m not paying attention—who may hold a more important role in the actual narrative (at least in terms of time spent “on screen”) but whose definitional identity remains as singular as if there is only one over-riding characteristic about him/her/it/yeye that matters in defining who they are. This singular identification, in these cases, seems to me to come about not because of plot necessities but because the writer (I include myself) has been unable to unfold the character on the page beyond that singular identity because the writer cannot unfold the character in his/her own mind beyond that singular identity.

I’m sorry to say that I run into this all too often with, for example, depictions of women in epic fantasy. In a five-hundred-word novel spanning great distances and vast conspiracies and the churning disruption of war, are there really only two speaking female roles, both of whom are sex workers of some kind? Or perhaps a mother? Or a sex worker AND a mother? Is the sole important identity of this character that she gave birth to a male character, or is having sex with a male character whose depiction is far more likely to include a multi-variant identity?

How about the black-skinned sidekick, or wise indigenous spiritual guide, whose plot function—to support and assist the main character—matters for the plot function but whose identity is, well, based on a single definitional identity?

While it is not always about race or gender or class or religion—I’ve seen plenty of television shows with, say, the rule-breaking detective or the stalwart working man or the whore with a heart of gold (hmm, maybe that’s got a gendered element or maybe not)—such singular-identity depictions seem to percolate to the surface more frequently in these categories by comparison to more nuanced depictions of characters whose grounding more easily fits into what is often called the dominant cultural paradigm. I don’t want to get into those particular issues here and now; others have spoken far more authoritatively and eloquently on such topics than I can hope to manage.

What’s most striking to me as a reader (and viewer) is how such singly-identified characters turn out to be, well, you know, flat. Uninteresting. Even, dare I say it, unbelievable. Almost, as it were, inhuman. (There are other reasons characters can be flat and uninteresting, but that’s for another discussion.)

It seems to me that when a writer, consciously or unconsciously, writes such singular-identified characters, s/he is only asking “what about this character matters to ME.” The writer is not asking, “what about this character matters to her, or to him?”

It seems to me that a key is whether the writer is seeing such characters from the outside, or from the inside. And I mean really from the inside, from the character’s own perspective of understanding themselves as a person of multiple identities.

Usually there won’t be room to display all of that on the page, but if the writer knows it, has glimpsed it, has acknowledged it, such recognition will lend depth and diversity and dimensionality to any given character’s depiction within the narrative.

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