The way you define yourself in your head is a powerful thing. I’m not talking about the façade we all put up to the rest of the world, I’m talking about the short set of words that we use to say to ourselves who we are.
Sometimes we lie to ourselves, and sometimes we’re forced to quickly reassess how we define ourselves because of outside circumstances.
Writers do a lot of self definition; for starters we call ourselves writers. That’s an important place to come to in our heads, where writing has become something that we are at our core as opposed to it being something we simply do as a hobby or even as a job. I think finding that definition of yourself is an important step towards being a professional.
Of course it can be a lie we tell ourselves. We define ourselves as writers and then we don’t write, but I think the sense of purpose and self that comes with calling yourself a writer can be refined to prevent that. Your personal narrative, the story you tell yourself about who you are shouldn’t just say; writer. In fact it doesn’t already; you will probably define yourself in a whole lot of other ways depending on how you perceive yourself.
So I say instead of just telling ourselves we’re writers, we start telling ourselves we’re good, patient writers. We’re writers prepared to learn, to take critiques. We’re humble and professional writers even before our first cheque arrives.
Defining yourself as something is more than just words we say to ourselves. If you define yourself as someone brave, and then do something cowardly then you can no longer define yourself as brave without lying to yourself. In the same vein if you define yourself as a professional person (in terms of the way you act) then going on a rant against a negative review just won’t be something you do because it violates the way you see yourself.
The problems come when we lie to ourselves, and we all do it to a degree. It’s not always arrogance, I know a lot of people who define themselves as terrible writers when they’re actually pretty good (or, in one case, insanely talented) but for the most part we try to see ourselves as a little better than we actually are. When we lie to ourselves, mostly we know it, and the times when you get a good look at the truth aren’t always pleasant but as writers (and as people) we can’t afford to just ignore those moments when we know something is wrong, either with our personal narrative or with our actions in the real world.
If you define yourself as a writer but you never write, something is wrong. Either your narrative has to change, or your actions do.
The wonderful, not to mention terrifying, thing about this personal narrative is that it can be changed. It’s not too late to change the way you see yourself by changing the way you act. Consistently As Rachel Hunter once said ‘it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen’.
This idea of a personal narrative is a really powerful storytelling technique. It’s also a great way to mess with your characters.
What happens when your character who has always defined themselves as someone who will stand and fight is forced to run away instead? Or if the person who has always defined themselves as a pragmatic coward finds themselves in a situation where standing up for someone else is simply what they need to do.
Also, most of us lie to ourselves at least a little, what happens when our characters get a really clear look at who they are and don’t like what they see?
There is serious trauma involved with negative reassessments of yourself, and that trauma can lead you to trying to change your behaviour to match the image of yourself that’s in your head. Sometimes that image is wrong, and having your delusions about yourself stripped away can force huge changes in a person simply out of necessity. This change isn’t necessarily for the better.
You can also have some fun with your villains by having their personal narrative be telling them something quite different from their actions. An extreme example would be someone whose personal narrative has them as a kind and gentle person but their actions are that of an abusive, violent monster.
Perhaps a better example is the villain who knows what they are doing is wrong, but has told themselves a story in their heads that says their actions are necessary, even though they’re awful.
Think about how your characters see themselves, then do everything you can to make them have to reassess that. Internal conflict is just as important as external, and it adds an extra layer of depth to your characters.
When it comes to you, look at the story you tell yourself about being a writer. Maybe it needs to be changed, maybe it doesn’t, but you owe it to yourself to check.