Writing Advice

Erikson’s Identity versus Role Confusion


Hang in there.  We are getting toward the end of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development.  This week, we are looking at identity versus role confusion.  This stage spans teenage years, from about twelve to about eighteen.  The central conflict teenagers are navigating here is one of trying to decide who they are separate from family and the social structure in which they have been raised.  Teenagers are working out what their values are independent from what they have been taught.  They are also deciding what roles they will fill as they move into adulthood.  Career paths, where they will establish homes, and relationships are just some of the critical decisions teenagers are making.  Plus, they are establishing this sense of “who am I” within the larger context of society and knowing these decisions will affect the rest of their lives.


Just as in earlier stages, two possible outcomes to this central conflict.  If a teenager can successfully establish an identity independent of their birth family, the teenager has learned the concept of fidelity.  Here, fidelity refers to the ability to connect and build lasting relationships with others even when differences in beliefs and values exist within the relationship.  If a teenager cannot successfully resolve this existential crisis of self, it can lead to role confusion.  This is where the teenager floats through life “trying on” different lifestyles in attempts to find a place where they fit in.  The uncertainty about how a teenager fits into the larger society and experimenting with different roles will continue until the teenager can establish themselves within their society.  Sometimes this struggle can lead teenagers to adopt a negative identity where they embrace values and behaviors opposite to social norms and expectations.  These teenagers tend to experience many negative consequences that can lead to added issues.


So, how does this apply to character development?  Many middle grade to young adult books tackle this concept of identity.  That classic struggle to identify who I am and how do I fit into my world, particularly if you’re exploring worlds other than our own, can create excellent material.  You could extend this, some.  What happens if your main character is an adult who never got past this?  Or something happens that forces your main character to return to this stage to build a new sense of self and belonging in the larger context?  What might force something like that and what might it take for your character to get through resolving this stage?  Or, perhaps, you could reverse this classic struggle. What if your main character had strong, established sense of self in the larger context, but others around the main character do not?  How might that generate conflict?  What might happen to your character’s sense of self if the larger context is in chaos?  How might your character try to resolve the conflict when much of the issue appears to be outside of the character?


As always, I hope this gives you a little boost and please let me know how it goes!


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