The word identity, or perhaps, the concept of identity, has become increasingly politicized of late, first with the general rise of identity politics, and, more recently, with identitarian movements that, seeing as identity politics are here to stay, they have to make strong statements regarding who they are. As for me, personally, while I sympathize with those who completely oppose the concept of identity politics, I also recognize the need to holds fast to my own national identity–the political party I am a member of here in Israel is called Zehut, which in English is Identity. But I’m not here to talk about Zehut, or the other wonderful movements such as Generation Identitaire, today. Perhaps some other time. Today, I want to talk about identity as relates to fiction.
I began with a brief mention of identity politics primarily as a way to demonstrate that identity is an important aspect of everyone’s mindset, both on a national and on a personal level, and many people struggle with this on some level, and it is not at all unheard of for people to redefine their identities during their lifetime, or for it to gradually evolve over time.
This is no different in fiction, as our characters are people too. Additionally, it is common for identity to be one of the conflicts our protagonists face. Just thinking about my own completed works, There are at least four examples of viewpoint characters who struggle with their identity in some respect, and all in very different ways.
Characters can be torn between two different worlds or ideologies, struggle with their place in the world, with what they need to truly be, or what they want to be. Hell, the entire convention of a coming of age story is essentially about a character, most always a young person, determining who and what they will be, and what truly matters to them. The hero’s journey archetype as well, is about identity at its core
It’s a very simple sort of conflict, but one that lends itself very easily to conflicts both internal and external, and we can craft extremely varied stories that deal with this concept of identity, and it has led to some of the greatest, most beloved stories and characters of our age. Characters ranging from Aragorn to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter to Rand al’Thor to Vin to Peter Parker, and many, many others. And, as I hope that brief list illustrated, they are very different characters, with very different journey and resolutions.
The fact that identity can so easily lead to great characters and stories makes it all the more frustrating when I see people, writers in particular, who try and create characters on which to project their own identities, or issues with identity. I’ve touched on this before, when I have talked about people who clamor for (skin-deep) “diversity” or “representation” in both fiction and in the creators of fiction. However, it is worth bringing up again here, in regard to identity.
The mindset of so many of these people has become, “I can only identify with characters that look like me, that share my identity.” Is it therefore any surprise that we are getting stories with main characters who are weak, non-heroic, and, for lack of a better word, mundane. I’m reminded of a post on Tor.com during #SpaceOperaWeek, where the idea of stories about everyday, mundane life was promoted–in space opera! In a large portion of the “mainstream” science fiction and fantasy world, the ideal, is to check the boxes that they fit into, and the result, as many of us can see, are inferior stories, featuring non-heroic characters, and conflicts that are often clumsily ripped from modern headlines.
I don’t know about you, but I am secure enough in my own identity to not try and force it, and conflicts I have faced, into my stories. Our unique identities can, and should, inform our works, and there is nothing wrong with it influencing what we write about. But taken to the extreme, as it is by many, all it does is show us people insecure about their own identities trying to compensate by forcing it into their fiction as well as trying to browbeat others into doing the same–or risked being attack by social justice mobs.
Any limits put on creativity, on trying to force oneself into the story–be it in this way or with a universally despised Mary Sure character, you are guaranteed to have less interesting, short-lived works. On the other hand, every book or story that I’ve read by a #PulpRevolution author is full of creativity, and each has its own distinct identity, which both entertains and prompts thought, with characters that have strong senses of who they are, even if they struggle with some aspect of it. Remember, to create great stories you do not have to follow any arbitrary set of rules, but I would very strongly advise maintaining some degree of separation between you and your characters. Just as we were “created in G-d’s image,” so too our characters our created in our own, but just as we are all unique individuals, with our own struggles and goals, you must understand that your characters are the same way. Their identities matter too, and they should be allowed to create and/or discover it via their actions and experiences.