Yesterday, I wrote about self-myths and the “I’m not” sentences we sometimes blithely—and other times insightfully—use to describe ourselves.
I joked that I’m not good at math. My neighbor, a pediatrics ICU nurse, uses algebra all the time at her job. She likes numbers, and I’m glad she does. You want someone who enjoys algebra calculating your meds. Someone who is not me.
I balance my bank accounts. I determine fees for my business. I do the prep work for my taxes. But despite all the promises in high school, (“You’ll need to know this someday!”), I don’t think I’ve ever used algebra in my life. And that’s okay.
Maybe, at some things, we are only as good as we need to be?
Helpful, Harmful, or Just There?
How does a self-myth affect your life? And, must an “I’m not” be an absolute—or a problem?
My self-myths were I’m not artistic, organized, introspective, adventurous, or techy.
Let’s talk about adventure. Climb a mountain or go hang gliding? Not a chance. Drive across country solo, winging accommodations and sleeping in my car? Tell me another joke. But I can—and do–drive to another state, walk into an artist colony full of strangers, and stay there for three weeks. That’s a different kind of adventure.
Techy? I have to beg for computer help about once a week. That’s not a self-myth. Are you good at something when it’s always a challenge? Or, do you work around it? I am surrounded by devices I don’t really understand. Talk about adventures!
If you are no good at socializing, does this mean you avoid gatherings that might lead to contacts or making friends? Or do you enjoy a solitary existence where you find fulfillment and contentment on your own or with a few intimates?
Maybe it comes down to how you feel about your self-myths. If you can’t sing to save your life, don’t join a choir. If you want to join a choir, maybe take voice lessons?
Self-Myths in Character Building
Dictionary.com defines mythology as “a set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular group or the history of an event, arising naturally or deliberately fostered.”
In life, things happen to us, and we react and respond accordingly. Luck, events, experiences, all change us internally, and that changes how we act and live our lives.
In fiction, the author creates the luck, events, experiences, and internal changes for characters. Baggage always comes from someplace. Why does Marianne cover her ears at the sound of thunder? Why does Reggie walk over to an arguing couple at a restaurant and ask the woman if she needs help? Why does Chris implode whenever a personal relationship gets too personal?
In fiction, these things don’t happen by happenstance. Using the definition above, they are deliberately fostered, to create drama.
Now for homework. There’s always homework.
Try this exercise to examine your characters’ beliefs about themselves. Think about your current protagonist and answer these questions:
1. What 5 “I’m not” sentences would he or she write about themselves?
2. How did each of the “I’m nots” originate?
3. Does each “I’m not” appear in the story?
4. Does each “I’m not” hinder or aid the character?
5. Is the “I’m not” static or does the character attempt to change this myth about themselves?
Understanding what a character is not may be as useful as knowing what they are. If a male character says, “I’m not a good dancer,” what happens when it is time to dance at his sister’s wedding? Does he stubbornly sit it out and, maybe, hurt his sister’s feelings? Does he get up and shake a leg, not caring that he looks like a scarecrow getting Tasered? Does he secretly take dance lessons in the weeks before the wedding—and if so, does he do it to surprise his sister or because he doesn’t want to look foolish? Or, does he believe he’s not a good dancer because he’s never tried?
See how much you can reveal through a simple “I’m not” self-myth?