Character identifications constitute the ‘meat’ of our process of reading literature, and become available to us once we have read the text in a sufficiently engaged manner. Through this process, we have defamiliarized ourselves with the story of ourselves—which was simultaneously a story of perfection—and in so doing, we have ceased to judge the characters, instead transitioning to a space where we can become them. Through this act of experiencing ourselves as a text’s characters, we stand to derive wisdom which we can then apply to our lives, teach to others, and use for the purposes of consciousness-raising and healing.
If you have followed along in the previous post and written a set of engaged annotations while reading a work of literature, the next step in readying yourself for character identifications is to organize your notes, compiling them such that all the notes about each character stand together. For instance, if you had read the novel ‘Zorba the Greek,’ you might have notes experiencing yourself as Zorba, Basil, Madame Hortense (Bubulina), and the Widow—to name a few—and these notes would appear in the chronological order in which they were inspired by the text. Instead, you could either rewrite them, or type them up such that they were organized by character, with all the notes about Zorba in one location, all the notes about Basil in one location, and so forth.
I mention ‘Zorba the Greek’ here because Zorba himself is actually the subject for my character identification in the below exercise, one with which a friend challenged me on social media. Trying to generate enthusiasm for this site, I sometimes solicit the subjects for my posts here on social media, then write about those subjects and tell friends I’ve done so. In this case, I chose to watch the film version of ‘Zorba the Greek’ rather than read the novel, to save time.
When we sit down to write a character identification, the first step is to read over the entirety of the engaged notes we have about a particular character, and to listen within our bodies for how this process makes us feel. For instance, following are some of the things which I’d written about Zorba while watching the film version of ‘Zorba the Greek:’
‘Showing up, going where I am called, being flexible in work and time.’
‘An absolute concern for my own freedom, and a fidelity to feeling.’
‘At the same time, a belief in the right and the good—an ability to leap into them without question.’
Reviewing these and other notes I’d written, the feeling of Zorba began to emerge, one which I could feel in my gut as though I were the character. From here, I simply described this feeling and some of the behaviors which stemmed from it in the first paragraph of my character identification, writing in both the present tense and the first person:
‘As Zorba, my ultimate fidelity is to my own feeling, and to the sense of freedom which I experience through following it. When I want to work, I work; to travel, I travel; to dance, I dance; and when I feel glum and reminisce on wounds of the past, I express that. More so than most men, and certainly more so than my partner, Basil, I am free.’
In this first paragraph of the character identification, I ground myself in the feeling of Zorba, shifting from here into how this feeling manifests in behavior. From having written probably a hundred of these character identifications at this point, I have noticed that the feelings of a character provide both the route by which a reader can enter that character, and the key to that character’s behaviors: we tend to act either to stanch negative feelings or to seek out positive ones, and knowing how we feel as a character thus illuminates both what we do and why. Sketching out a little bit of this material in my first paragraph on Zorba, I am drawn to learn more in the second:
‘At the same time, there is a lostness, sadness about me. I can see this in how defensive I become when questioned about my motives, how important it is to me to be seen as pure. More so, I can see my sadness and lostness in how I love women, then leave them; in how I scatter the money that is given to me in trust by Basil; in the wreckage I make of the project we form together, and how I laugh about it. In these and so many other ways, I bring harm to myself and others.’
As we explore ourselves as a character, we will usually notice self-destructive or damaging patterns like these, mostly because positive feelings are always corresponded by negative ones. If I am a character who chases out ‘highs,’ as Zorba does, then it is a guarantee that I am also fleeing ‘lows,’ and these darker, hidden feelings will provide the key to the ways in which I am self-harming, and why. Through this second paragraph of my character identification on Zorba, I do nothing more than continue elaborating the first two essential beats of character identifications: 1) how I feel, as the character in question, and 2) how I behave as a consequence of that feeling.
‘As Zorba, part of the reason I do this, deep down, is that I am afraid, afraid of who I would be if I honestly committed myself to service. At core, I am a person who wants to work, to expend his body in love and labor, and more than that—I am a person who wants to care for and sanctify others. I can see this in my treatment of Bubulina, whom even if I ultimately break her heart, I also treat well in the time when it most matters, nurturing her literally to the moment of death. As Zorba, there is the desire to do right, only because it feels good to me, and by pursuing my own freedom in place of a deeper commitment to the right, I am frustrating my desire.’
This third paragraph pursues the next essential beat of character identifications, which is to ask why I behave in the way I do as the character. Every time so far that I have positioned myself in the seat of a character, I have not only noticed how I felt as that character, then seen the behaviors that arose from that feeling, but also been called to ask myself why I emitted those behaviors—in other words, what deeper thing did I not know or was I afraid of, as this character? This constitutes the exposure of the character’s shadow, the limitations which even they may not be consciously aware of. As someone with the grace to step into the vantage of the character, but also with the gift of our own perspective, we are able to glimpse this shadow, and our compassion means that we are able to write about it as though we are the character, in a manner that is illuminating as well as forgiving. As Zorba, I see not only who I am and what I have, but also what I want, and I see the ways in which I am currently frustrating that desire and why.
‘If I were to care for myself as much as I cared for Bubulina, or Basil, or the widow—if I were to care for myself in this way, I would see that my habit of fleeing the place or person by whom I am most needed, is actually a way of abnegating what I want: to see others grow in my love, and through that, to grow myself. If I could love and trust myself in that way, as Zorba, I would properly grieve the death of my son; I would apologize to Basil for my carelessness with his property, but articulate the deeper lesson I taught him; I would set forth in a new life in which my word could be relied upon, and know that I am happy instead of enigmatic.’
Facing all this darkness that we did in the first three paragraphs of the character identification, the mind naturally wants to know: how could we be happy, as this character? What might that look like? Because we’ve already outlined the feeling position of this character, the behaviors that stem from that feeling, and the shadow side of self-harm, we already know: we have described the limitations and the consequences of a harmful way of being, immediately beyond which lies an entirely different way to live. In this final paragraph of the character identification, we simply describe that possibility for liberation, one which we—and the character—will naturally want to grow into by virtue of having seen it.
Glancing back over my character identification for Zorba, I also felt called to write a final, summative few sentences in the form of a fifth paragraph:
‘To put all this another way, as Zorba, perhaps the greatest thing I stand to learn, is that I can be both good and free—indeed, that it is freeing to be good.’
A few things to note about character identifications in general that arise from this example:
- They occur in the first-person, and the present tense, just like engaged annotations. This is because writing in the first-person keeps us in the vantage of the character, and writing in the present tense makes this experience immediate. As such, we have already prepared to do this exercise by virtue of having performed engaged annotations while reading the text.
- Although they do not necessarily contain the above steps in a certain order—nor intentionally—all character identifications that I’ve written seem to answer the following four questions: a) how do I feel, as this character? b) how do I act as a consequence of that feeling? c) in what ways does this behavior limit my life? Why do I persist in doing it? d) if I didn’t act in this way, how would my life look different? Through these four questions, we both explore the characters as they are, and liberate them through imagining how they could be different. In this combination, we perform an act of service in the form of true compassion.
Writing character identifications is a powerful, creative act because it completes the course of disassociating us from the story of our lives, instead positioning us in the story of characters who, at first glance, might have seemed irreconcilably different from us. For this reason, writing character identifications makes us more in touch with the essence of our humanity, peeling away those aspects of ourselves which we had deemed essential in order to demonstrate the simple things that allow us to connect with one another. If I can sympathize with—indeed, experience myself as—any character in a work of literature, then surely there must be some principles of wisdom which we share in common, and which we could use to benefit one another and improve our lives? This is the question which leads us to the articulation of wisdom through psychic mapping, the next step in our process of reading literature and one about which I will write at a later date.
For now, I will leave you with the above exercise, the four essential ‘beats’ or tenets of character identifications, and the curious case of Zorba from ‘Zorba the Greek.’ If you feel called to try out character identifications with a text or film that you’ve been reading or watching, I’d be interested to hear of the results below. As with the previous week’s post, this process would also work with other media than writing, such as music, painting, or dance. The point is to feel ourselves as someone who is not, at least superficially, ourselves, an act which muddies those waters and thus births the possibility of spiritual and transcendent experience.
May you be well.