Friday 15 July 2022

Character Notes on the Self (1) - by Rowena House

Re-reading John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story the other day, I came across his discussion of ‘the Self Expressed as a Character’ which I’d meant to follow up on before. 

Noting ‘there is no monolithic concept of Self in the history of stories’, Truby identifies four main traditions:

  • The mythic Self, where a single personality is searching for their destiny, discovering and enacting their deepest capabilities.
  • The Self comprising many, often conflicting needs and desires, where the character exhibits a strong urge to connect to others, perhaps even to subsume another person. He cites Ibsen and Chekhov among the writers who created this type of character.
  • The Self that plays a series of roles demanded by society at the time. He gives Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as examples.
  • The Self ‘so unstable, porous, malleable, weak, and lacking in integrity that it can shift its shape into something entirely different’, strikingly in Kafka’s Metamorphosis but see also vampires and werewolves.

It seems to me that the ‘many, often conflicting needs and desires’ tradition these days blends with stories that explore how inner drives conflict with the roles demanded by society, now and in the past. Gender expectations versus girls’ and women’s need for self-fulfilment is one obvious example.


In this week’s New Scientist, author Caroline Williams’ article Internal Affairs about our inner voices added this to the mix:

‘Early theories of consciousness suggested that we each have one “self”, with distinct likes, dislikes and motivations. Yet while we generally feel like one coherent person, many psychologists now consider the singular self to be an illusion. Instead, they argue that we are made up of many selves, each with a different set of motivations and standards. This means that our inner chatter may be a result of the different roles that form our sense of self.’

So contemporary psychology suggests, like Ibsen and Chekhov, that we are divided into many selves. 

Today’s post, then, is the start of a collection of notes about the Self which I’ll return to when I come across alternative points of view from different times and places, seeking insights and applications for storytelling. At some point, presumably, conclusions will emerge.

To kick things off, here’s a link to Wikipedia with comments on scientific, sociological, philosophic and religious aspects of the Self . 

And here’s an edited opening snippet from that webpage: ‘The Self is an individual as the object of its own reflective consciousness … (it) is necessarily subjective.’

By this definition, the Self is ‘I’ looking at ‘me’ non-objectively while feeling as if the two are the same.

Wikipedia continues, ‘Psychiatric conditions where such "sameness" may become broken include depersonalization, which sometimes occurs in schizophrenia: the self appears different from the subject.’

So, some people who feel ‘I am not me’* have a psychiatric condition. Yet Caroline Williams says many psychologists ‘consider the singular self to be an illusion’. Which begs the question: how can ‘I’ feel like different versions of ‘me’ at the same time, or is there an inherent conflict here?

Yes! Shouts an inner voice. Or voices. No wonder being human is stressful.

Another nugget from Wikipedia, which is likely to be familiar to fiction writers: ‘The Self in Jungian psychology is the “archetype of wholeness”’ not seen directly but observed through ‘cohesive wholeness-making’ actions.

Just think of all those protagonists overcoming conflicting desires and needs in order to fight a Final Battle, then acting out their newly won ‘wholeness’ in the Resolution, without a nagging inner voice to be heard. 

It would seem that Jungian-style storytelling is a rather skewed form of wish-fulfilment if the many selves theory is right.

Less familiar territory, for me at least, is the concept of a ‘spiritual Self’, the individual searching for meaning in the sacred. Since the work-in-progress explores religion and witchcraft in the seventeenth century as well as notions of us and them, AKA the Self and the Other, spirituality isn’t something I can avoid.

Here is one definition of spiritual identity: ‘A persistent sense of Self that addresses ultimate questions about the nature, purpose, and meaning of life, resulting in behaviours that are consonant with the individual’s core values.’

It’s from an article by Chris Kiesling, Marylin Montgomery, Gwendolyn Sorell and Ronald Colwell called Identity and Spirituality: A Psychosocial Exploration of the Sense of Spiritual Self, published in Developmental Psychology in 2006 (42(6) pp 1269-1277). 

So now we’re talking about life, the universe and everything. 

Sometimes you know you’ve just opened a can of worms, but also that you can’t keep the lid on it any longer. Why now? I blame Truby, and not just because of his discussion about the Self in literature.

Elsewhere in The Anatomy of Story he suggests we only write stories that may change our lives. It’s a high bar, but if we clear it, we’ll never waste time on nonsense or dross. Researching the Self, the Other, and humankind’s historic search for the meaning of life kinda fits that bill.

Enjoy the sunshine. 

* Apologies for journalistic short-hand. I expect there’ll be quite a lot of it in these notes. Soz.

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