Writing Fiction By Example

Learn to write fiction by reading and analyzing excerpts from published novels.

Self-Concept Against the World: Easy Idea Generator

Self-concept Trumps Every Other Power

Self-concept is one of the strongest powers on earth. Self-concept is more powerful than all the nuclear missiles because it is a person (who owns a self-concept) who ultimately controls the nukes. Self-concept _is_ character. It is the essence of what you are searching for in your stories. People act from the foundation of their self-concept. They follow actions that are based in the belief of who they are. Your characters -- if they are to be real -- must do the same.

Three Points to Convince You of the Power of Self-Concept

Maybe you need a little convincing that self-concept is such a powerful thing. I will offer up three examples.

  1. American Idol - That's right. American Idol is a perfect example. Consider those terrible, awful, singers who sound worse than a cat with its tail caught in a door. One of the judges, like Keith Urban might ask, "Well, how do you think you did?"
    "I think I killed it," the contestant answers.

    The horrified judges stare. Blink. Blink. The cat with its tail caught in the door has evidently grabbed their tongues. They cannot speak. Why would this obviously terrible singer believe he is good?

    One reason: self-concept.

    Maybe the singer is joking? Sometimes you see the judges laugh because they cannot believe the singer is serious. "You don't really believe you are good do you?"
    The smile slides off the contestant's face. "Uh, yeah. I love to sing. I don't know how to do anything else." Self-concept is about to take a beating.

    It is at this point, the contestant either cries (full on blubbering) -- realizing that maybe the self-concept is incorrect. Or, the more fascinating and often occurring response is that the contestant becomes angry.

Self-concept erupts. "Who are you to say? Some people like this kind of thing. My mother loves to hear me sing."

"Are you sure? Is she usually in the same room when you are singing? Maybe she's out at the grocery store or something."

More anger.
Then, J Lo tries to ease the contestant down, "Baby, it's a no." The soft sell. Get the crazy guy out of here and make sure he gets his meds before he kills us all. Now that his self-concept is bruised and battered, anything could happen.

  • Adolf Hitler is a good example of a self-concept gone terribly wrong.

    There are, of course, a great many other evil people whose self-concept has gone crazy and they've been able to convince others that they are in fact some kind of power in the world.

    I hate to mention Hitler but he is a very good example of the power of self-concept pushed to its limits. To understand what I mean by that, imagine if Hitler early on had come to himself and considered how terrible his ideas were.

    If he had, for even a moment, questioned his self-concept and everything he believed about himself, he never could've carried out his plan of evil.

    This is true for all the evil people in the world and it is why evil people do not believe themselves to be evil. No, instead their self-concept is that they are doing something that no one else has the will to do.

    This is true for you evil characters also. None of them will be carrying out an evil plan because they believe it to be evil. If you write that kind of story it will fail to grab your readers.

    Self-concept is what drives the mother who gently cares for her children (she believes she is a loving mother and it is her purpose). Self-concept is the same thing which drives a leader in combat to take a hill to protect his men (he believes he was made to protect the ones under his charge).

  • Consider your own self-concept.

    Imagine that you believed you are a writer. If you believed it, then you'd be churning out stories with no thought of whether you'd be successful.

    I can prove that with a thought experiment. Suppose an editor from Penguin Publishing called you and said,

    "I've read your blog and your writing is great. My company is prepared to pay you $80,000 + royalties for your first novel."

    Instantly your self-concept would convert and you'd think, "I'm a writer." But, if you wrote before that phone call, you already were a writer. You just hadn't allowed your self-concept to be fully formed in that area because you were looking for affirmation.

    We tend to believe things about ourselves that we want to believe and that we hope are a part of our self-concept. We tend to reject those things strongly that we don't want to be a part of our self-concept. It is why self-concept is the most powerful thing on earth.

    Imagine the Opposite of Your Self-Concept

    Now imagine if someone attempted to tell you who you are:

    • Hey, you're the lady who loves big slobbery Saint Bernards, jogging in the rain and eating oysters. Yes, that's you.
    • You're the guy who knits, owns four cats and does the daily New York Times crossword puzzle. You like to sleep in late and you're not interested in getting a job. That's you, right?

    If these are not true of you, you balk. "Are you crazy? That's not me at all."

  • Okay, so you are now saying, "No, I'm just not writing that much because I don't have any good ideas." That's what this article was about in the first place, right? So now I'm going to give you the key that will help you generate as many ideas as you want.

    Step 1: Think of a subject that contains some action.

    I'm saying to include action just so you can write about people doing something. Here are some subjects that include action and I promise I'm making them up right now:

    1. knitting
    2. gardening
    3. hacking computers
    4. playing a sport
    5. stamp collecting
    6. miniature figure painting

    I like those last two because in my mind they are so fabulously boring. I mean do you think you could write a thriller of mystery and intrigue about stamp collecting? Well, I'm going to show you how to do that.

    Step 2: Push Character Up Against His/Her Self-Concept

    What we need is Herman, an inveterate philatelist who is mid-thirties but still lives at home with his mother. He loves stamps. He knows the historical story behind each stamp how owns. He stares at them for hours memorizing small details of each. You learn that his stamp collection is worth a huge sum of money, but that doesn't matter to Herman. He loves stamps.

    Meanwhile he pines away for the girl next door who is gloriously beautiful. (I'm having to tell here instead of showing you guy's tongues fall out of their mouths as she walks by, because telling is faster for this summary, but believe me, she's a knockout with curves in all the right places.)

    Herman has a discussion with her as she's arriving home late one evening and trying to get rid of the guy who took her out.
    "Why do you go out with him if you don't like him," Herman asks.
    In a moment of honestly she explains that the gentleman has a huge net worth -- "that's right, Herman, he's rich and I like being pampered. I suppose you think I'm terrible" she says and brushes his face with hand.
    "I could never think you're terrible, Ophelia."

    Ophelia gets into her house leaving Herman to contemplate. Instant realization of what he must do lands inside Herman's mind like a boulder smashing through a wall: I must sell my stamps.

    They're worth millions. Ophelia would marry me.

    But, he loves stamps? Now the faltering of the self-concept. He has to alter his self-concept. Sell the stamps, get the girl. But the stamps are the essence of who Herman is and his entire meaning in life.

    Of course, you know how this is going to play out? Herman is going to sell the stamps, spend his money on wild living with the painted lady and then lose her too. Then, where will his self-concept be? Completely trashed. No stamps. No beautiful girl.

    That kind of conflict could cause a character to become a complete monster. I've given you an amazing tool here, if you'll take it and use it you can generate a plot from anything.

    If you've found this helpful, I ask you to simply buy my book Fiction Writing Gems (only $2.99) at amazon -- see sidebar item. It's filled with ideas to help you write better.

    Keep on learning, keep on writing.

    ~Roger Deutsch