I’m not a killjoy. A lot of things in media and popular culture that bother, annoy or even offend and anger others don’t have the same effects on me, and I can usually enjoy most things for what they are.
So what I’m about to say is by no means an attack against those Zimbio and BuzzFeed quizzes that populate our social media news feeds. In fact, I very much appreciate them on three levels:
(1) Their popularity lends further empirical support to some of my ideas about pop culture in relation to psychology and modern mythology.
(2) I admire clever marketing and those quizzes are brilliant marketing (Heck, I’m considering making a few myself!).
(3) They’re easy, light-hearted fun and there’s definitely a place for that.
I also believe they’re popular for good reasons despite the annoyances that some people express about them. I won’t discuss those reasons here but I think blogger Julie DeNeen lays them out quite well in her recent post.
Slate contributor Emma Roller has a more jaded perspective and writes, “But do any of your Facebook friends really care if you’re more of a Spock than a Kirk? No. No, really: No one cares.”
She’s not entirely correct. See, I care. Maybe because it involves my life’s work but I personally do care who my friends see themselves as or, rather, who they would like to be. And if what I’m about to say next intrigues you, I urge you to read this entire post and to please share it.
First of all, although these pop culture personality quizzes are not in themselves very deep or profound, they do graze the surface of something that is extremely deep, even ancient and primal.
Next, we all know that these quizzes are just harmless forms of wish fulfillment and identity reinforcement. Even if you do answer honestly and not just pick the ones you think will result in your desired character, it’s unlikely the results are “accurate” (Shirley Manson once took a BuzzFeed quiz for “Which Alt-Rock Girl Are You” and didn’t get herself, haha). But we all need a bit of this kinda thing so there’s nothing wrong with it. I’ve even played several of the quizzes myself (one out of genuine curiosity and three others as research before writing this).
However, it doesn’t have to end there.
Do you idolize Hermione Granger and wish you could be like her? Do you admire Spock and think that you’re kind of like him and wish others would acknowledge that?
If so, then you have a choice: keep it in the realm of quick-and-easy ego gratification or do the extremely hard work of actually becoming those characters that you love so much in a truer, deeper way.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with the former, but if you want the latter then you’ll need to invest a bit of time and energy. Stay with me.
From Fantasy to Reality
Although the brevity, simplicity and often tongue-in-cheek nature of these quizzes prevent them from really being accurate assessments, that’s fine; they weren’t designed to be accurate.
Relax, I’m not saying this means you’re actually not as badass as Michonne from The Walking Dead or as witty and hyper-intelligent as Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones. You very well may be.
But the truth is all characters from all franchises are simply dressed up incarnations of older, more abstract archetypes from mythology. In fact, any given character is often an amalgam of more than one archetype.
Furthermore, all of the primal archetypes are simply different aspects of ourselves. Depending on the situation, life circumstances and stage of development, however, we manifest some of them more than others at different times.
To the degree that all characters represent numerous of these archetypes, and these archetypes represent different facets of us, we are—all of us—all of these characters.
That means that yes, indeed, you are Tyrion and Michonne, but you are also Joffrey and the Governor. I know that’s not pleasant to think about but it’s true. Besides, you will like what I have to say next.
Although all characters exist within us as different levels of potential, we can consciously choose and invoke which ones we want to be like most at any given time. While this may somewhat dilute the ego-gratification of being told by Zimbio that You Are Luke Skywalker, it is actually much more empowering to be able to slip in and out of being Luke, Han, Chewbacca, C3PO and even Darth Vader as the specific period of your life and situation demands.
Or here’s a more explicit example that should drive the point home. Ned Stark is an awesome character—noble, honorable, a real man through and through. But he gets his freakin’ head cut off in the first goddamn book/season. Why? A number of reasons, actually, but mostly because he was too uncompromising and stubborn. And once he’s gone, his entire family and people fall into danger which he arguably could have prevented by being more flexible.
This means that if you really are like Ned Stark in every way to the core, then in an equivalent real-life situation you are likely to, figuratively speaking, get your head “cut off” whereas a bit of Tyrion in that situation may be just what the problem demands.
For me, it is empowering to believe that I have Ned, Arya, Tyrion, Daenerys, Tywin and Hordor all inside me and can bring them forth as needed. And believe me, there are times when Hordor has the edge over them all.
From Theory to Practice
Okay, so it all sounds nice and everything, but how does one actually apply it?
• Identify a problem in your life. Life is a never-ending series of fluctuations but one thing is constant: You will always have some kind of problem or other, even if not a very serious one. Nevertheless, any problem, big or small, works for this exercise.
• Pick a pop cultural franchise/universe to work with (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, etc.). This isn’t mandatory but I find it useful as a focus mechanism. Otherwise, your brain will be all over the place, flitting to and fro from Star Wars to Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica. Also, depending on how large your chosen universe is, you may want to sub-divide it as you see fit. For example, you could choose the entire Marvel Universe or you could further narrow it down and focus on the X-Men. Generally, the more focused the better and you can always go back and redo the exercise using a different focus.
• Mentally scan the roster of characters in that franchise/universe and make a note of one or more characters who you think could solve this problem. However, stick to characters that you genuinely like or this won’t work.
• Think carefully and try to identify exactly what qualities and skills that character has that make him someone that could solve your problem. Be specific and clear. “Daryl Dixon could solve this problem of mine because he’s such a badass” isn’t going to be very useful. It should be more along the lines of: “Daryl could solve this problem because he’s so grounded and practical unlike me. He has real-world skills, not just theoretical knowledge. Also, his heart is in the right place but in an extreme situation he can be aggressive if necessary and I wish I could be like that because I tend to be passive.”
• Further clarify and fine-tune how those qualities and skills apply to your problem. This can be a bit tricky in that you’ll need to be both very general and very specific at the same time. For example, let’s say you’re a philosophy PhD who’s broke and needs a job. Obviously, Daryl’s hunting skill isn’t going to be of much use to you (I mean, it could, but let’s be sensible). Well, what does his hunting skill represent on a more general level? It represents his overall penchant for practical skills.
This could translate for the broke philosophy guy in different possible ways: he could learn the self-marketing and networking skills necessary to land that coveted college professor position, or get a job at a gas station if he needs the money badly enough, or, if he’s not willing to stoop that low, learn some practical skills that could land him a slightly better job than gas station attendant while he keeps looking for that university job. Daryl would be quite capable of all of the above because he doesn’t have a sense of entitlement the way an average PhD holder might. So maybe our philosophy doctor could also benefit from lowering his expectations just a tad, at least temporarily. The list can go on and on, and often you’ll find that the more you brainstorm along these lines, the more potential insights you’ll come up with.
• Now, using that list of qualities/skills, brainstorm a list of actual, concrete actions steps you need to take to solve your problem. Break these steps down into smaller micro-steps.
• If you don’t get enough material from just one character, enlist as many as you feel you need, but I don’t recommend going over two or three. Most situations and problems can be adequately addressed with two or three archetypes and if you go over that your efforts become scattered and weak. In my experience, working with 1-2 archetypes at a time in a strong, focused way is much more beneficial.
• For some of you, depending on how much strength of will you have and how closely the character’s qualities already resemble some of your innate ones, this might be all you need. You’re now ready to just begin doing the action steps that you’ve identified and to nurture those qualities/skills that help you to do them.
• Very often, the above steps just won’t be enough. In that case I offer this “technique” I made up that I personally use and that suits me quite well. It involves imagining yourself figuratively becoming that character. For this you need a robust imagination and willingness to suspend your disbelief and do something that you might think sounds a bit silly. But silly as it may sound, this is actually nothing more than a simplified form of method acting, and would you call Daniel Day Lewis, Christian Bale or Heath Ledger silly? A bit crazy, perhaps, but not silly.
• First, allow yourself to watch one movie or one episode from that franchise, whatever it is. If it’s a book or comic, read one chapter or issue. Pick the movie, episode, issue or chapter that you feel best contains and shows off the pertinent qualities of your chosen characters and watch or read them. This step is for working up the emotional motivation to do the next and final step. But don’t allow yourself more than one work/episode or this exercise will just become an excuse to go on a Breaking Bad marathon.
• Next, take a few minutes to sit down, close your eyes and visualize yourself actually becoming the character. There are any number of ways to visualize this, just do whatever feels right to you. I like to use music to stir up desired feelings and amplify the effect. The stronger your imagination muscles, and the longer and more focused you do this, the more “real” it feels. Repeat this as often as necessary or when you feel that willpower alone isn’t enough to do the things you need to do.
• Now pick something small from off your to-do list and do it. It’s not necessary to externally act out the character, especially if you’re channeling a darker character. It may be useful, for instance, to channel Heath Ledger’s Joker at times—his audacity, his conviction, and the fact he just doesn’t give a s**t what people think. However, I don’t recommend walking around smacking your lips and acting like a psychopath. Use your common sense and good judgment in this.
For example, these days I’m channeling bit of Walter White. No, I’m not thinking of cooking meth or doing anything illegal and I would never hurt anyone else even if my own survival were at stake (you mustn’t take this exercise too literally). However, I’ve come to realize that if I want to survive in my current circumstances I might have to be willing to do a few things that somewhat go against my own usual self-image. But like Walt, I just have to bite the bullet because far more important things are at stake. And despite all the terrible and inexcusable things Walter did, the power of his archetype is that he was willing to step beyond his comfort zone, put aside the old self-identity that wasn’t helping his situation, and try something different, something a bit more extreme.
His great weakness, of course, was that despite his intelligence and courage he just didn’t have the wisdom to go about it in a way that didn’t hurt people or tear his family apart. He could have, for instance, just swallowed his pride and accepted the help that was offered to him. It wouldn’t have felt good but it would have solved his financial worries without killing people in the process or hurting those he loved. (This is why I don’t recommend working with the dark archetypes unless you’re confident you have the wisdom to channel them properly.)
Here’s what I ultimately want you to take away from all this.
You don’t need Zimbio to tell you that you are Captain Kirk. You don’t need thirty friends clicking “like” on your You Are Katniss meme to validate the fact that you are indeed her (or at least have the potential to be her). All you need is the courage, time and willingness to do the difficult inner work necessary to awaken her qualities within you. And then you are Katniss if you say you are. You can boldly claim and own the fact that you are no matter what anyone else says or thinks.
Take my word for it: thousands of years of mythology are greater validation for the identity and persona you want than some fun little quiz and a few likes on Facebook.
Still can’t associate myself with one of those fictional characters.
Hi, Olga, I personally use both fictional characters and real people for inspiration. Some people like the fictional characters more, some people are more inspired by real people. I myself am more inspired by real people but I know how much people love these stories, so I use them. Thanks for your comment! 🙂
Here’s an example of a real-life person who inspires me https://www.popmythology.com/january-hero-of-the-month-lizzie-velasquez/
You’re right Daniel. It doesn’t matter where we can find an inspiration while all the fictional heroes came from real ones (in some cases). Thanks for the link.