The Masks We Wear

We’ve been wearing masks all along. It’s just that now many of us are wearing obvious masks when we venture outside our homes.

It’s good that we wear those masks, whether nicely designed or hospital-functional. Sure, go out, contribute to the economy, but why not protect yourself and those around you from a frightening infection? (Okay, I guess we can argue about herd immunity or personal freedom, but that’s not my main point today.)

We all wear masks all the time, and this is a great thing for writers to keep in mind as they bring their characters to life.

As the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote, “We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us.”

Imagine you (or a character we call You) are at a social gathering, standing amid the buzz of chatter, the crunch of pita chips.

When you socialize with people you don’t know well, you present a certain version of yourself, probably the prettiest mask: “Yes, I’ve been doing volunteer work with underprivileged kids for about a year now.” 

With colleagues and casual friends, you might present something a little different: “This is a strange party, don’t you think?” 

With those closest to you, again a bit different: “If you want to go, just tell me. I’m not fricking telepathic.”

And inside the privacy of your mind (no mask now), you likely think things you’re not willing to share with anyone—perhaps darker desires or embarrassing fears: That’s the person I wish I were going home with.

Then there’s one more layer, where things lie that you’re not consciously aware of. For example, you may not realize how smug or drunk you’re appearing. Or how dismissive you are of your partner. Or how cruel you are to anyone who reminds you even slightly of your mother.

You may never glimpse these blind spots in yourself, but definitely look for them in your characters.

(I’ve been thinking about this layer lately as many of us are pondering our unconscious racism—thoughts that prevent us from treating all people equally, even though we fervently believe we are doing just that.)

With writing, it’s helpful to think about the various masks your characters wear, which is certain to make your storytelling more interesting and complex and true. It’s more intimidating to peek under your own masks, but if you’re up for some soul-searching…

That’s my daughter, Sahara, in the picture. What masks will she wear?

Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop

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