Who are you? I ask my English composition student this as we begin the semester each time I start a new class. But I tell them I don’t want to read: I’m a freshman. My major is Science. I like pizza.
This tells me zero about who they are. I want to really know who they are. What defines them? Many 18–21 year olds really don’t know and that’s fair. I didn’t really know who I was yet at that age. I knew what I wanted and what I liked, but I didn’t know what my values were, my beliefs, or what would bring meaning to my life.
The reason I want students to go a little deep is not because I’m nosey or because I want to know their innermost secrets. Truthfully, I don’t even need to read their papers (I do though) because they are writing this for themselves.
Writers need to understand people. We write about people — characters. But before we can understand other people, we have to understand ourselves.
Coach and speaker, Michael Hauge has given many presentations where he speaks about the character’s internal motivation. When I listened to him speak and read his books, something clicked inside of me and I understood how to write great characters.
What he teaches is that a character has an identity when a story starts. That identity is made up of many masks. It’s the identity that the character wants the world to see. The character might show the world that he is capable, professional, wealthy, a great parent, etc. And the character believes that this is his identity. It’s not that he’s fake, he really believes this because he’s created himself to be this person.
The character will do anything to protect that identity, but the plot, the story you are telling will challenge the character’s identity, strip him of those masks and make him live his true identity or his essence as Hague terms it.
Since I write romance and women’s fiction, it became clear to me that when we fall in love with someone it’s because finally, someone has seen past our fake identity. They have seen our true essence and they have not run away. We can be ourselves with that person and we feel safe, and so we fall in love with them.
So, the question we must answer as writers is who does this character think he is and who is he really? Because you need to get him to become who he really is.
Here is a small clip of Hauge speaking about the character’s internal journey. Watch the whole thing when you’re finished reading this blog, but he begins speaking about identity around 4:40.
Back to Who You Are
The reality is that we are just like our characters. And if we do not know who we are, what motivates us to write, what success means to us, what our values are, what our goals are, what would really bring meaning to our life and make us feel that we understand why we are alive, we will have a difficult time becoming the writer we want to become.
I’ll share a short story. I’ve been writing since I was about 19. I knew I wanted to write romance. I was fascinated with the idea that two people could find one another and live happily ever after. I’m not sure I believed it was possible, but I wanted it to be true. After deeper thought and understanding myself better, I learned that it was because my parents didn’t have that once in a lifetime relationship, and I wanted desperately to believe it could happen, if not in real life, at least in fiction.
I wrote and published most of my novels before I went back to college to get my MFA in creative writing. Most of the students there really wanted to write literary fiction. That was good literature according to professors. The junk most commercial writers write these days, that’s not literature or good writing.
But I was writing those type of books! And selling them. For a short time, I had an identity crisis. Should I be writing literary fiction if I wanted to be a real writer?
Like I said, it was a short identity crisis because I knew myself. I knew what my goals were and why I wanted to write commercial fiction. I didn’t want college professors to read my work and debate the true meaning of my words. I wanted to entertain an audience that wanted a little escape from life. I wanted to write books with Latino characters to offer women like me an opportunity to have the type of books I didn’t have.
But if I hadn’t known who I was and what I wanted and why I was writing, I might have believed what I was learning in college. I might have felt that what I was writing was inferior or not real writing.
Another reason you want to understand who you are is because you will always know what to write about. My early books are about characters who have identity issues based on culture. Immigrants, bi-racial people, adopted people and probably many others often have identity issues because they don’t feel fully accepted anywhere. This is how I felt when I was younger, so that is what I wrote about. Obviously, that was not the plot of my books, but in the subtext of the novels, that’s what the book was “really” about.
Define Who You Are
To better understand yourself, take some time to answer these questions.
1. What do you value? And why? Go deep.
As an example, do you value Financial security? Why? Because you grew up not feeling financially secure? What did that make you feel? Vulnerable maybe or not in control of your destiny.
Really go deep to understand why you value what you say you value.
2. What makes you feel alive? Where do you get your energy and refill your emotional well?
A walk on the beach. Writing. Looking into the eyes of the child you created.
3. How do you make decisions? Do you use emotions or facts?
I’m sort of analytical. I look at things from all angles before a I choose to do anything. My dad used make decision based on emotions. The man decided to sell everything we owned and move from New York to California just because a friend was moving and he thought, why not? I’ll go too. He ran out of money in Nebraska (they were driving) and he left me and my mom there for a couple of months to return to New York to work and make more. His old boss hired him back. Then he drove back to Nebraska, picked my mom and me up and continued to California. To me that is crazy! I would never do something like that in a million years. But I don’t do anything based on emotions; he did.
How do you make decisions?
4. What do you feel is your mission in life? And what makes life worth living to you?
This requires a lot of thought. You might say that you don’t know. But take time to think about it. And you might have more than one. And it might change over time.
I find teaching meaningful and the connection with others feels fulfilling. But I didn’t always realize that. I have a couple of friends who rescue dogs, not as a career, but they do it because saving hurt or lost pets and placing them in a nice home makes them feel good and gives meaning to their lives.
5. What do you feel you need to prove in this life and to whom? Why?
Do you need to prove that you’re a good person? Smart? Capable? Take a look at the identity you share with the world, the person you let everyone else see and you’ll get a glimpse of what you want to prove.
I see college kids that stress over grades. Yes, grades are important, but some kids really, really care. I sometimes wonder, why does being a top student matter to them so much? What are they trying to prove? Do they have an older sibling that always did better than them and they want to show their parents that they are just as intelligent? Is this the identity they want to create?
It’s not good or bad to realize you’re so driven because you want to prove something to someone, but it’s good to think about this and understand why we might be obsessed with grades or exercise or being a helicopter parent, or anything.
6. Who is in your social circle and why?
Why do you choose to surround yourself with the people in your life? What do they add to your life?
7. If you asked your friends who they think you are, what would they say? Would you agree?
This is interesting because it could show you if you are living in your essence or not. It’s kind of tricky though because remember that Hauge said that characters believe that their fake identity is real. You might be glad that your friends describe you a certain way if you believe that is who you are. But is that what you portray to the world, or that who you really are?
These are just a few questions, and there are many more I could ask, but it’s a good start to understanding who you are. Notice that I didn’t ask you what you think your strengths are or what music do you like to listen to, or what are you passionate about. These questions ultimately do not tell us much about ourselves.
Will All of This Make Me a Better Writer?
To deeply understand who you are will help you to choose the right genre. It will help you choose the themes of your books. It will help you to create realistic characters.
Great writers are not defined by the type of writing they choose. It doesn’t matter if they are writing literary fiction or commercial fiction. Great writers are defined by if they had something to say. I’ve read many novels that had something profound to say, and I closed the book thinking that the author really understood pain, abandonment, loss, love, humility, or whatever the writer showed in the story.
And no doubt, that writer understood the feeling or emotion because she had experienced it and knew herself well.
Take the time to know yourself, and you will know who you are as a writer and what you should be writing.
Have a story to tell? Want to learn how to record personal experiences before they’re lost or write a novel? Let started by downloading for free Julia Amante’s “Free Your Story” framework.