I have a love/hate relationship with writing advice. I’m an editor. Even though I promise myself every time that THIS post will be the last, I write a lot of writing advice for this blog, and I have a habit when I’m editing my own work of reminding myself of old advice from mentors. But there are times when I’ve really struggled with writing advice, like this essay about “thought” verbs by Chuck Palahniuk.

It’s a fantastic essay, filled with good advice. If you haven’t read it, and you aren’t doing what he advises already, reading this essay and following his advice will probably make you a better writer. When I read it, though, I was about 5000 words into the first draft of my current novel. (Its working title is SIREN.)  At the time, I was pretty sure that it was going to be a novella about a woman who spends thirty days alone on a raft.

Then I read this part of the “thinking” verbs essay:

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering. [Here he gives an example of what it looks like when a worried character isn’t allowed to be alone.] A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

If I had been thinking, I would have remembered Krapp’s Last Tape (video) and Big Two-Hearted River and the monologues in Hamlet. I would have realized that I was probably attempting something difficult, but there are plenty of examples of characters in literature spending lots of time alone without bringing the play or story to its knees. (Now that I have thought about it, my guess is that the intent of the essay was probably to help beginning writers avoid situations where they’d be tempted to hand the reader information instead of allowing them to piece things together for themselves.) At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking, and I was fairly convinced that my book had just been given a death sentence.

Fortunately, I’m married to a guy who shares my love of Beckett, and he could see immediately that I was being absurd and helped me talk it out. My novel survived, and so did the sections where my characters spend a lot of time alone.

It’s tempting at this point to wrap this whole experience up with a moral. (And if I did, I would choose Laura Simm’s “Don’t take your baby to Target.”) But in this case, being exposed to what I perceived as such a major challenge to my work forced me to think more deeply about what it means to be alone.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than a few seconds on 4chan, but ever since I saw Chris Poole’s keynote at SXSW in 2011, I’ve admired what he’s had to say about identity. Recently, I stumbled on this video (video) of his talk at the Web 2.0 Summit in 2011. In the talk, he says that we all have prismatic identities, that we are different in different social contexts. Google and Facebook try to reflect this by allowing you to pick and choose who you share updates with, but he says that it isn’t who you share with that matters but who you share as.

4chan allows users to use anonymity and handles to reflect different facets of their identity, but in real life these identities are often much more fluid. You might see a member of your family act as a husband, a son, a father, and an expert in 16th century Polish philosophers in less than a minute. That’s a really complicated picture, but odds are that person would show different sides at a nightclub or a high school reunion or an academic conference.

Carrying the prism metaphor forward, one would assume that moving between social contexts would be like rotating a crystal. Each context reveals only a few facets of the identity, but when we are alone, freed from social context, we are able to be our true selves and express all of these facets at once.

When I began writing SIREN, I operated from the assumption that when my characters were alone they would reveal their true selves, but when I actually look at what I’ve written, I notice that this isn’t what happens at all.

In the first scene of SIREN, one of the main characters, Azor, speaks to no one, sees no one, and yet he acts like someone moving between social contexts. When he thinks about his family, he puts on the selfish, impatient identity that he has with his family and becomes irritable when he tries a door and finds it locked. When he remembers the school chef, he shows a much more patient and empathic side, and brings breakfast to a friend who is still sleeping in the dorms. In a thousand words, Azor shows very different and sometimes contradictory facets of his identity. I’m less than halfway through the novel, but so far all of my characters act like this. Instead of removing the influence of social context entirely and creating a unified character, being alone only allows them to move freely between these contexts in their minds.

In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says that one of the tragedies of the death of a friend is that you not only lose that friend but you lose the qualities in mutual friends that the lost friend brought out. It makes me wonder if the many facets of identity are not just expressed differently in different social contexts but also created by them. If that’s true, the prospect is a bit scary since, as Chris Poole said at the Web 2.0 Summit,  we now have more choices in the toothbrush aisle than we do in social spaces on the web.

For me this raises several questions: What parts of our identities are we missing by spending so much time socializing in a place with only a few contexts? What are the psycho-social consequences of social spaces that bring out only the facets of ourselves that are brought out at home and at work and at the club? What are the consequences of all of this in character creation? Would a character with only one or two social contexts have a flatter identity than one with many interests, communities, and roles?

In any case, I think Chuck Palahniuk is right in that characters should never be alone. The only thing is, I’m not sure fully imagined characters ever really are alone.