The Social Masquerade: Faces We Show the World

I had a professor once who liked to tell his students that there were only ten different plots in all of fiction.  Well, I'm here to tell you he was wrong.  There is only one: who am I?

~ The Amazing Spiderman (2012)

Humankind’s penchant for self-delusion can cover the entire range of trivial to truly epic.  Our ability for mutual deception is, at times, worse.  But, is all deception malicious or even intentional?  Surely not.  From a young age, people are taught to control their expressions and desires, to display a “proper” and “civilized” front to the world.  Often, these rebukes were given with the intent of sparing the feelings of another.  We wear masks not to hide who we are, but rather to make social interaction easier or more pleasant.  Are we being dishonest with ourselves and those around us?  Only in part.  I have a persona I wear when I act in my role as an engineer and another I wear when in my authorial role.  My friends see one side of me, my family another, and my girlfriend a third, each slightly different, and yet all are much the same.  All these masks are simply different aspects of me, times in which I suppress parts of my personality and highlight others.

I have found that it is easier to write round characters when I keep in mind the great social masquerade.  Children are often more genuine as they have a smaller inventory of social masks than adults.  When faced with a situation, especially something new or frightening, adults will don a social mask as a way to distance themselves from something that makes them uncomfortable.  So then, what makes my character-in-progress uncomfortable?  I will often sketch out quick scenes in which I expose that character to situations and other personalities and “test drive” their reactions.  Working out how they would interact with a variety of situations and to a variety of individuals forces me to sit down and work through all aspects of the personality I seek to write.

The masks, however, can also become an interesting plot point.  When a social mask is taken from the realm of selective personality broadcasting to outright deception, the character may create significant problems for themselves.  In one case, the character might ‘slip up’ and an antagonist might notice a flaw in the mask that they then seek to exploit.  On the other hand, a character might don a social mask for so long that they suffer a crisis of identity.  A third story could be an individual who has had a social mask imposed on them and, for the first time, have the freedom to determine who they want to be.  All of these scenarios are character driven plot archetypes because they are rich with material for character growth arcs.  Stories like this resonate because it is human to wonder “who am I?”


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