Tasks, Resolutions and Storytelling

Every so often you’ll hear someone mention as a part of their field of interest a concept that sounds immensely familiar, not from their field, but from something only loosely related.

On Saturday, ruralrover @ The Counselling Blog used a storyline from the Archers to discuss a theory of “psychosocial development” that was expounded by Erik Erikson, that breaks development down into 8 stages or life periods. The theory describes the basic conflicts at each stage of development, and casts them in the context of, “our attitudes to choices we have made, or had imposed on us.”

Here’s the image reproduced from that post:

Well, this looked very familiar to me, not in terms of counselling or “psychosocial development”, but in terms of narrative storytelling, and writing. The vast majority of teen fiction revolves around identity vs role confusion, for example (although it can focus on “intimacy vs isolation”). Stories in general follow an arc that leads the protagonist from one side of the pair to the other, and back again (though often with a different style of being than before), but a story about very young protagonists can still focus on questions raised by later stages and older protagonists can have stories that deal with primal issues like trust, or autonomy vs shame and self-doubt.

An interesting study might be to follow Anakin Skywalker’s development through these phases. We meet a young boy with trust and autonomy (demonstrated by his attitudes to the strangers, and by his capacity to make his own decisions in building robots and pod racers). The crisis he faces in Episode 1 is initiative versus guilt: that he leaves his mother to become a Jedi, and how he feels about that, forms the basis for his development as a Jedi. Episode 2 takes Anakin on a journey that traces a path between industry and inferiority that is shaped by his previous guilt from Episode 1, and provides fertile ground for a crisis of identity. As the episode also traces the beginnings of his relationship with Padme, the beginnings of the Intimacy vs Isolation conflict are also laid in this part of the story. Episode 3 begins with Darth Sidious exploiting the relics of guilt and inferiority to fuel the role confusion and lead Skywalker towards an identity with the Dark Side; this, in turn, triggers the crisis of intimacy or isolation, as Anakin turns away from his friends and is rejected by Padme. Episode 3 ends with Anakin “Darth Vader” Skywalker realising his isolation.

Episode 4 does not develop Vader’s storyline a great deal (so we can suggest “stagnation”), but in Episode 5, he faces an opportunity to recruit his son to the Dark Side: a crisis of generativity vs stagnation. Episode 6 resumes this storyline, and is resolved when, despite all the negative emotions relating to previous choices, Anakin Skywalker makes the choice to reject the despair he’s shown for much of the film, and chooses a final act of integrity.

Since Anakin/Vader plays a villain role for 3 movies, and part of a fourth, he doesn’t get the resolution that a protagonist would have. The intriguing thing is to note that his development as a character can be traced quite neatly by understanding the conflicts he faces in each of the movies as stemming from the stages of development. It’s also worth recognising that the development stages overlap.

I’m not here to write about Star Wars, or psychology, though. I’m here to write about my own fiction, and how various topics that interest me tie into the story I’m building. So of course, now I want to think about how the various conflicts in my novel fit into the framework described by Erikson.

My protagonist, and indeed, most of the lead characters, are all in their thirties. The central conflict from the first phase of the book is an overlap of intimacy/isolation (which is the antagonist’s main motivation, though she has a strong element of generativity/stagnation in her actions as well) and identity/role confusion. Jo, the protagonist, starts off secure in her identity, but the antagonist’s quest for intimacy throws this into confusion. As Jo starts to explore to see if her role and identity have changed, this in turn challenges her partner’s identity and casts doubt on the intimacy they’ve previously established.

The central crisis that brings everything to a head occurs when the antagonist shifts from intimacy to generativity. Unfortunately, her attempts create a situation in which the protagonist is isolated, creating an acute crisis. The remainder of the protagonist’s journey shows, in sequence, crises of integrity/despair; identity/role confusion; generativity/stagnation and finally intimacy/isolation.

What intrigues me is to see how each conflict is fed by the others, and each resolution changes to context of the other unresolved elements. The description that these are as much about attitudes towards past decisions as they are current dilemmas helps to show how this works. When my protagonist reaffirms her sense of identity, it presents her with an opportunity to pass on what she’s learned – something she couldn’t do while she still questioned her own relationship to those lessons. Passing on those lessons enables her to reassess how she feels about the decisions imposed on her previously and make new decisions.

Of course, there is much more to a story than these kinds of questions. Even the motivations are more complex than simply pointing to where on a chart they fall. And there are other models for describing each element. But the more we know and understand of humanity, the easier it is to tell stories. And stories are a way of furthering our understanding of people (even if a story is about furry animals, or robots, or aliens, underneath all that they are always stories about people). So it’s perhaps not that surprising that theories about people should also remind us of theories, or features, of storytelling, after all.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Writing about writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tasks, Resolutions and Storytelling

  1. ruralrover says:

    Thank you for such a fascinating post, I think the star wars arc is I think a great one to understand how these roles develop. I think all good writing points to universals, and the truly great writers are all concerned with how we tackle what Erikson calls tasks. Drama comes from the gap when we fail to resolve the conflict.

    • ValeryNorth says:

      Thanks for your reply!

      Yes, as I was thinking how to choose an example of fiction to demonstrate the principle, Star Wars seemed to stand out particularly well (it would be an interesting exercise to think about which stages and tasks are represented by Obi Wan Kenobi, and Luke Skywalker, in their journeys).

      I was just reading in the latest Doctor Who Magazine how RTD enjoyed being able to explore the “how we view past decisions made/imposed” aspects by writing a novel rather than screenplay, and I thought back to this piece again. Erikson’s concepts resonate so strongly with the advice I’ve found on how to create characters and plot.

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