Get to True Identity

We’ve talked in recent weeks about the story-defining concept of

Get to “I love you.”

For me, as I’m working on a new story, this way of thinking is tremendously helpful. It doesn’t work for every book or screenplay but it sure works for a lot of ‘em.

Start with two characters who are as far apart emotionally, materially, politically, and spiritually as possible. They don’t have to be actual lovers, nor does “I love you” have to imply anything physical or romantic. The pair can be an adult and a child (Paper Moon and True Grit), a human and a non-human, a mouse and a mutant. “I love you” can happen within a single character (Far from Heaven), who at story’s end comes to accept and embrace not a separate character but her own self.

Here’s another paradigm I find extremely helpful:

Get to true identity.

In the climax of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck tears up the letter he had forced himself to write turning in his friend Jim, he has reached his true identity.

When Bogey puts Ingrid on the plane to Lisbon, he has reached his true identity.

When Thelma and Louise go soaring into thin air in their ’66 T-bird, they have reached their true identity.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) gets to his true identity as “Heisenberg” in Vince Gilligan’s BREAKING BAD

Pick any one of a thousand books or movies (dramas, tragedies, comedies … the principle applies across the board) and you’ll see more often than not this paradigmatic  progression:

Act One: Hero starts with a warped and deformed self-conception (Huck, Thelma, Bogey).

Act Two: Hero is compelled by events and her own decisions to embrace a new and initially terrifying (to her) view of herself.

Act Three: In climax, hero embraces this new identity-what we as viewers and readers can see clearly as her true identity-whole-heartedly and in a manner that permits of no going back.

Even mild-mannered Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad, by the end of series when he has become the arch-villain “Heisenberg,” is true to this principle. That’s why for me the whole burn-down-the-world ending worked. Even within his unrepentant villainy, Walter/Heisenberg manages to sacrifice himself to save his friend Jesse (Aaron Paul).

P.S. On another subject, if you missed the announcement last week of our new video series, The Warrior Archetype, you can sign up (below) to subscribe.

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16 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on August 26, 2020 at 1:58 am

    Thank you Steve, this is great stuff. This paradigm aligns with the ideas about the character rejecting her ‘lie’ to get what she needs instead of what she wants. I’m loving your mini-videos btw, and have watched through those you created way back when, which I missed, on tribes. Fascinating, and very relevant nowadays, and also to story worlds we all might create.
    Peter

  2. Mary Doyle on August 26, 2020 at 6:51 am

    Love this – as always, thanks!

  3. Sam Luna on August 26, 2020 at 8:02 am

    “Get to True Identity” …… wow, that is the placeholder at the bottom of the foolscap, isn’t it? And figuring it out is the journey of the writer and the protagonist. Thanks as always for the gem, Coach!

  4. Franklin Freeman on August 26, 2020 at 8:02 am

    Thanks, Steve, for a great post. I just thought, how do I apply this to my novel and boom there it was: this is my hero’s progression. Good confirmation. And as you say elsewhere, this is the artist’s progression through a project also.

  5. Geoff Rohde on August 26, 2020 at 8:17 am

    looking forward to your insights regarding the sometimes overlooked (at least by some) aspect of the warrior: justice and compassion. These virtues prevent the warrior from devolving into a thug or villain seek to kill or dominate. Cicero’s “On Duties” addresses this and I’m sure you know of many other great thinkers from antiquity and days of knighthood and most likely Eastern traditions, too.
    This series brings your “War of Art” to life for me in new ways!
    Best wishes

  6. Anastasia Kingsley on August 26, 2020 at 8:18 am

    Thelma and Bogey – what juxtapositioning.

  7. Joe Jansen on August 26, 2020 at 8:32 am

    A thought on what’s great about this post on “getting to one’s true identity,” as with “getting to ‘I love you'”: didn’t stories arise from early humans’ desire to help each other navigate the wilds? Gathered around a fire to hear the elders speak of how to take down an oryx, or how to avoid becoming prey to a lion.

    These stories — novels, films, other art — they entertain us, for sure. But don’t we connect most deeply with the stories that help us navigate our own lives? Provide examples or templates we can use? Huck tearing up the letter, thus transcending the social evils of the day, overcoming the “yetzer hara,” touching his “neshama,” and thus finding his true identity.

    I recall Eckhart Tolle sharing his story of nearly taking his own life. He recounted, “I was so low, I said that I can’t live with myself any longer. And then it occurred to me… who is the ‘I’ that can’t live with my ‘self’?” Isn’t that what we’re all engaged in, and why this story archetype of “finding one’s true identity” draws in so deeply (bring us closer to the fire)?

    Aren’t we all trying to connect with that “I”? Our true identity?

  8. Matt Rass on August 26, 2020 at 10:42 am

    Charles Bukowski’s books always start off with him presented with change and then he goes through all of his shit and in the end accepts the person he was at the beginning. I always loved that about his work.

  9. Jim Gant on August 26, 2020 at 11:31 am

    Joe,
    Ah…our ‘true identity’…
    Run, walk, crawl, scratch, and fight to find the Light that is within.
    Steve taught me that.
    Be good. Do good. Be with.

    • Joe on August 26, 2020 at 2:09 pm

      Thumbs up, Jim.

  10. York on August 26, 2020 at 1:01 pm

    The timing of this is perfect

    I’m feeling this is what I need in my stories and in my own life

    And it’s funny; it’s as if the energy of this vibe gathered around today. I just saw a book recommendation in one of Seth’s Akimbo workshops I’m in. It’s a book called The Alter Ego Effect.

    I assume it is along the lines of your post.

    So it’s really exciting that you posted this today when you did

    It’s like a spiritual beacon saying “go in that direction.”

    And I’m almost there.

  11. Jessica Spring Brown on August 26, 2020 at 1:34 pm

    “Be open to all points of the compass” has been a life quote for me personally for the past forty years. Now I will add to it “and may that point lead me to my true identity.

    Great post today! Thank you!

  12. John on August 27, 2020 at 1:53 am

    My friends told me about Quzzister.com. I’ve gone there to read various templates of A-winning academic papers. They were absolutely free.

  13. John Pierre Powell on August 27, 2020 at 10:30 am

    Is it … “The Hero’s Journey” retooled?

  14. Shane Breslin on August 28, 2020 at 6:10 am

    This really resonated with me … but not from a “story-writing” perspective.

    It resonated with me because it felt like just what I needed to hear this week in real life. The journey to true identity, that’s a rollercoaster all of us are on.

    When do we get there? I suspect many of us get there when the bright light opens up and we’re called from this world. The lucky few might reach a level of wisdom and understanding before then.

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