When we're young, we tend to see the world in black and white, right and wrong.
As we grow older and gain exposure to nuances and ideas outside of our parents' world, we generally move along the spectrum towards a world that exists in funny shades of gray or vibrant hues of color. The grays I'd classify as primarily pessimistic, the colors as primarily optimistic, but both have the ability to see complexities and shades and issues from different views. A select few don't gain this type of vision and instead move further towards the extremes of coal and alabaster, defining themselves exclusively by one ideal or another.
Yet, despite our ability to see many sides of an issue, we still represent ourselves to the outside world with singular definitions. Middle-class. Rich. Poor. African American. Hispanic. White. Republican. Democrat. Male. Female. Laborer. Manager. Cop. Writer. Gay. Straight. American. European. Atheist. Jewish. Christian. Muslim. High school dropout. College graduate. Doctor. Mother. Father. Sister. Brother. Husband. Wife. Eco-conscious. Consumer. Book smart. Street smart. Athletic. Dumb. Meat-eater. Vegan. Food addict. Victim. Survivor. Lazy. Go-getter. Reliable. Flaky. Young. Old. Ugly. Beautiful.
We string along a series of titles and tags for ourselves to connect with people who are similar, to save the time of explaining our belief systems, to avoid taking the time to evaluate our thoughts in front of another person, to oppose people we disagree with, to build a community, to simplify and make sense of what we can not fully comprehend, to gift ourselves with a faith or belief that might shatter under the scrutiny of ourselves or our peers.
And we use these shortcuts to let the world know that we exist and we stand for something. We mean something. We have a point of view. It's easier to use a singular definition than explain what we really mean
When you are writing and you want to know your character intimately, know which words they would use to define themselves. Now dig deeper. Know their doubts about those definitions. Dig even deeper. Get to know how they blatantly go against their said definitions and beliefs in particular situations. Understand when they would abandon said belief or identity for self-satisfaction, survival, security, to fit in, to stand out.
I've always felt that the better I got to know a person, the more difficulty I had defining who they were. I could explain a person I met after five minutes using a series of labels, but I would get tongue-tied when asked to describe a best friend or a boyfriend. No definition felt sufficient, so I would resort to small, seemingly mundane irrelevant stories that represented their core, and acknowledge that they were not one thing all the time.
These complexities, the holes that eat at the words that we use to present ourselves to the world, the realities behind formation of such identities, are what make us interesting, and human. They make us vulnerable, easy to relate to, stubborn and confusing.
writercize: Create a character in your mind by using 3-5 descriptive, labeling words to describe who they are, as they would describe themselves to the world around them. Now tear it apart by exposing at least one way in which s/he does not fit into the self-inflicted label.
Click "read more" to see writercizer sample response.writercizer sample response:
(man - Jerry) Young. Level-headed. Funny. Selfish. Brave.
Ok, so I created a young, funny, selfish, brave, level-headed guy named Jerry. To avoid prejudice and assumption about anything further in his character, we'll leave him without a job, ethnicity or a political or religious bent - these are just some basic adjectives one could use to describe character or how one sees one's self.
Here's how Jerry breaks his mold.
Young - perhaps in Jerry's mind, he's young. Truth is, Jerry's closer to 50 than he is to 30, so chronologically, Jerry's no spring chicken. Let's say he's 46. However, he's one of the youngest people among his coworkers, and he stays current on trends in music, technology and fashion, so he "feels" young in all the right ways. Truth is, he doesn't realize that when he's sitting in public, thinking he's getting what the college kids a few benches down are talking about, they're looking over at him thinking he's got more in common with their parents than they do with him, and wondering why he always hang out in "young" college places.
Selfish - sort of going along with the whole idea that he's young, Jerry has never felt ready to marry and settle down. A big part of him things its because he's selfish. He doesn't want to share holidays or a bathroom or his finances. He doesn't send money to charities or make commitments to women because he wants to be fully in charge of his own time. But, he's not as selfish as he thinks. He's very committed to his family and puts a lot of time and effort into making them feel loved. He never forgets a friend's kid's birthday or what a coworker's favorite coffee is. He mistakes failed relationships due to an inability to commit to sharing in the long run for selfishness, when really it's a fear of being hurt. Selfish is easier to blame it on than the truth.
Level-headed - Mostly true at work. Mostly true after work. Not true all the time. Because he gives calculated responses all day every day, he tends to give into impulses a couple times a year to "let off steam" and go on binges when he drinks or doesn't sleep or shuts off the judgment of his mind. He thinks he deserves this "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" mentality by compartmentalizing it, but he is so happy to let loose that he doesn't realize how out of character and concerning it can seem to those around him. Makes decisions purely on adrenaline during those times.
Funny - thinks he's funny because people laugh. He wants to lighten the mood at meetings and when meeting people and resorts to humor. People laugh. Tells people he's funny. Really, he's a little insecure, thinking he should be more unselfish (read: married) and settled at his age (knows he's not as young as he wants to be), so he attempts to overcome it with humor, but knows he feels awkward and others can sense it too.
Brave - once stood up for a friend in a fight in middle school. Never publicly stood up for anyone or anything ever since, but identifies as brave because he overcame fear during the time when he knows kids are the most confused. Feels very connected to that singular incident and relies on this memory to get himself through those times when he is hard on himself for being "selfish."