Friday, April 27, 2012

Identity Status: Using Psychology in Writing

I'm fascinated by psychology and think my understanding of it helps me with character development. One thing I find intriguing is that many of my favorite writers have a background in this subject.

A few years ago, I took a course in developmental psychology. It introduced me to several theories about how the personality of an adolescent emerges. One I found particularly interesting was that of Canadian psychologist James Marcia, who says that there are four identity statuses. To understand these, you need a couple of definitions:

Crisis: The period of identity development when a person is choosing between various alternatives, trying on different skins.

Commitment: A personal investment made when an individual chooses what to do with his life.

The four identity statuses:

Identity diffusion: The state in which an adolescent has not yet experienced an identity crisis or demonstrated commitment. A sort of blissfully ignorant and unaware position that is the standard before the individual begins to examine his life and values.

Identity foreclosure: The state in which an adolescent has made a commitment without experiencing a crisis. Example: a person adopting his parent's religious beliefs without examining them for himself or questioning them in any way.

Identity moratorium: The state in which an adolescent is in crisis, but has not yet defined his commitment, or has defined it in only a vague way. Example: an individual who bounces from subject to subject in college, never  deciding on a major, or continually changing her major.

Identity achievement: The state in which an adolescent has undergone crisis and made a commitment. Example: a person questioning the beliefs of the church he was raised in, exploring other religions, and deciding that he agrees with the values of his own faith after all.

I think limiting these statuses to teenagers is shortsighted. Many adults never go beyond identity foreclosure, while others are forever mired in identity moratorium. I also think you can have a crisis, make a commitment, then find yourself back in crisis.
In my own life, I cycle between identity moratorium and identity achievement. I think this is why it's so easy for me to channel my 'inner teen.' In fact, I'm not convinced that I ever really grew up. One might consider this a sign of immaturity or lack of commitment, but I think it shows a willingness to explore new ideas, challenge ingrained beliefs, and open one's self to ongoing growth. There's always room to tweak your ethic core as you develop new strengths and are exposed to new ideas. After all, no one so far has achieved perfection.

~ Lisa

In addition to being a YA author, Lisa Nowak is a retired amateur stock car racer, an accomplished cat whisperer, and a professional smartass. She writes coming-of-age books about kids in hard luck situations who learn to appreciate their own value after finding mentors who love them for who they are. You can connect with her though her blog, The Tao or Webfoot, or buy her books Running Wide Open and Getting Sideways at any major online retailer. Her third book, Driven, comes out May 10th.


  1. *bookmarked*

    SERIOUSLY awesome post. One of the things I've struggled with (that thank God my CPs call out well) is a character reacting authentically and consistently to identity changes like the one you describe. Making these reactions ring true while also making them seamless with the plot development is CRUCIAL to a sympathetic character and a strong voice. This helps SO MUCH.

    Thanks for an awesome post!

    1. I'm glad I could help, Leigh Ann. :)

  2. Great post, Lisa! I regret not taking any Psych courses, but I learned some of this through osmosis, by observing myself and raising four kids to adulthood.

    1. I think observation is a great way to learn psychology, Elle.

  3. I think it's good for adults to keep some of their teen selves for all aspects of life!

    1. Yup. They can force us to get older, but they can't force us to grow up. :)

  4. Identity foreclosure is an easy way to exist as a teen (and an adult really) and can make for some great conflicts as your MC is forced to come to terms with herself and life.
    Great post! Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge.

    1. I totally agree. When a person hasn't examined her core beliefs, and is suddenly forced to, that's a prime opportunity for drama.

  5. have an interesting space, a great pleasure to read you.
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    happy day.
    a greeting.

  6. opps!... i believe i am mired in identity moratorium..
    wonderful post. its worth visiting your blog.... thanks for sharing madam..