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Before we hustle to write or sell our film or TV show, we must probe into our characters' identities – particularly, the protagonist.

*Is the protagonist's identity well-formed at the start of the script?

*What are the character's identity elements?

*Has the character suffered an identity crisis, or is it designated to occur in the future?

*What could throw the character's identity off balance?

*What could induce the character's identity crisis?

However, prior to exploring the aforementioned, it's prudent to delve into the concept of identity.

We employ it daily and seem to know its essence well, but its definition is not apparent – it was not incontrovertible even for psychologists and sociologists that tackled the subject (predominantly the American-Jewish psychologist, Erik Homburger Erikson).

The popular definition construes that "identity" is the sum of our beliefs pertaining to ourselves, which define our self-perception - how we see ourselves, our place in society, the meaning of our lives, our life skills, our values and principles.

I personally maintain that identity is more than an aggregation of self-beliefs, and that self-perception is a profound cognitive sensation, which stems, among other things, from a combination of emotions, actions, and thoughts. Thus, I relate more to the portrayal of "identity" as an expansive quality that's comprised of various aspects of one's self-perception.

What are identity's elements?

My objective to both simplify the definition and elaborate on its aspects, led me to devise a model to assist in the exploration of the concept of identity. The five-component model facilitates an extensive analysis of the components' relationships, which enables me to utilize it as a valuable tool to structure characters' identities in the screenplay.

Identity Elements

*Background and setting (objective)

*Self-image (self-esteem range)

*Internal beliefs (true and false), biases

*Extrinsic value sources (such as: profession, status, residence, marital status, community/friends)

*Intrinsic value sources (negative or positive)


Applying the model to shape an identity

The model I propose conveys that one must balance the various identity elements favorably, in order to create a character with a personality that is well-formed. A favorable balance of various elements can be achieved by acknowledging the importance of intrinsic value sources, such as: authenticity, awareness, introspection, integrity, moral stability, self-acceptance (which incorporates our capacity to embrace our solitude), and personal responsibility.

Considerable significance is placed - often an excessive amount - on background and setting, or on extrinsic value sources, as a means to self-identify. When there is an absence of a favorable balance between the varied elements, the identity can be thrown off its equilibrium to the point of experiencing an identity crisis. We often see this phenomenon in films and TV series, since nearly every movie or TV show is about an identity crisis. In a persisting and teetering attempt to reduce internal incongruence, to strive for a well-formed self-identity. Often the main conflict is an identity crisis that transforms the identity.

When one asks another who they are, or asks oneself, "Who am I?", the reply will often include future endeavors. However, at times, the correlation between the reply and one's self-identity is inadequate. Actions are often the prominent factor in defining one's identity and personality.

Characters on screen are akin to humans: the characters' decisions and actions are not an arbitrary compilation of behaviors. They are a product of the characters' own expectations, tied to subjective values and principles, as well as self-esteem and a degree self-identity formation. Even in terms of self-determination, when a character acts as though it knows what traits it possesses (and what traits it does not), the viewer will conclude who the character really is by observing its choices.

This will usually occur in the course of the main conflict – in that particular stage, where a subconsious need shifts into consciousness ("the character now knows what it needs"). This stage, as I've addressed previously numerous times, carries the defining moment: a moral decision that stems from acceptance of a genuine vital need to make the right choice.  

"The aspiration of the soul to balance and bridge its incongruencies to reach a sole self-identity, appears in many therapy films, in which the protagonist's journey aims to bridge the known to the forgotten, that has been restored to the memory (...) The phenomenon to bridge the soul's incongruencies exists in all therapy methods and thus can be seen in cinema" (Ruth Netzer, "Cinema Takes Care of Us", Resling Publishing Israel, 2013).

Personal Responsibility

While personal responsibility is a positive intrinsic value of a supreme nature, some of us often deny responsibility for our behavior, as well as our responsibility for shaping our identity. If we base our conclusions on the subject's popular observations, the processes of unifying and shaping identity take place partially on a subconsious level. However, a personal endeavor to explore self-identity always occurs on a conscious level. This experience is an intermediate stage in shaping identity, and therefore, it would be correct to state that identity cannot mold itself into shape. Fate is not an identity. An identity crisis is not an unalterable circumstance, and one should not treat it as an impasse.

Nathaniel Branden, articulated this matter in his book, "Honoring the Self: The Psychology of Confidence and Respect" (Random House Publishing Group, 2011): "Acknowledging our personal responsibilities is the realization that no one will rescue us from ourselves. After all, no one will perform our job for us. No one will organize our lives for us, no one will boost our self-acceptance."

Exercise 1 – The Character's Identity (reply in place of the character)

*Who am I?

*What are my goals? Where am I headed?

*What do I like about myself and what do I have a challenge with?

*What is my place in society? How do I get along with others?

*What is my place in my family?

*What are my principles?

*What are my interests?


Exercise 2 - Identity Crisis

The three films that are presented here portray the protagonists' confrontations with identity crises. Try to speculate what the identity crisis is in each film:


Geula (the picture at the top is from the film's trailer)




Stories We Tell


Exercise 3 - Identity Elements

*Is the protagonist's identity well-formed at the start of the script?

*What are the character's identity elements?

*Has the character suffered an identity crisis, or is it designated to occur in the future?

*What could throw the character's identity off balance?

*What could induce the character's identity crisis?

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