You're at a cocktail party. A young man walks up to you and introduces himself.
"Hi, I'm Johnny. I'm a status-seeking pre-med student with a low tolerance for financial instability and a moderate tolerance for emotional instability. Can I get you a drink?"
Yeah, that ought to woo the women.
We very rarely craft our self-images to project our emotional needs (even though the end result might betray those needs). But we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how we hope to be, the image we wish to project, and what we want others to think of us.
It's something more than simple self-image. It's a combination of self-image and projected image, with a healthy dose of hiding just to keep things interesting.
If you're at all familiar with astrology, you might already have some basis for understanding this concept. (We're going to file this under "things I learned in creative writing school.") When an astrologer casts a natal chart, the first three placements identified are the sun sign, the moon sign, and the rising sign.
The sun sign is a person's core personality, the foundational traits which will always make up part of their character in some way. These traits can be magnified or diminished by other factors, but they're still pretty constant. When we say things like, "Geminis have quick minds," or, "Capricorns are good with money," we're usually referencing a sun sign trait. And when we read our horoscopes in the newspaper, we're reading for our sun signs.
When creating a character, the "sun sign" part of it will be things like long-term goals, backstory, immutable traits, socioeconomic position, career path, and the other enduring, big-picture factors that can be used to define the basics of who that character is. When a character defines himself or herself, these traits will factor strongly on the list. Example: Betty Draper is an upper-middle class housewife who worked briefly as a model before stepping in to her expected role of wife and mother. She has three children, a husband, and one married brother. She enjoys riding horses and uses and English saddle. Men are strongly attracted to her, and she places a lot of value on appearances.
The rising sign is the person's external or public personality. Think of this like a layer of external traits on top of the core personality, much like a layer of clothing over the body. Just as line and color and texture of a dress can influence the way the body looks, the traits of the rising sign can make a character "look" a certain way. Rising sign traits are often the first things we notice about people, even though they are often not the most important.
When creating a character, the "rising sign" part of it will be how others see the character. It's a mixture of projected image and actual impact on others. Part of thinking through this part of the character requires us to understand where a character tries but fails to create certain impressions. Example: Betty Draper is well-spoken but she doesn't have much to say. Her person and her home are meticulously well-maintained, but she does little of the actual maintenance work herself, though she does think she struggles to maintain a "perfect" facade. People think she's naive, pampered, and lucky, but when they get to know her better, they feel sorry for her. The impact she has on people, therefore, depends somewhat on how well they know her.
The moon sign in a natal chart indicates the hidden or shadow side of ourselves. This is the part of ourselves we hope people won't notice, the part we try to leave out of our public personalities. This doesn't make this part of us less real or valid. It also doesn't mean it's an automatic negative. But it does mean that we might not be quite as accepting of these parts of ourselves. The moon sign, in some ways, points to where we will struggle.
In creating a character, the "moon sign" often relates to our deep emotional needs and how we try to obscure them. These are the parts of ourselves we don't want others to notice. Is the character insecure? Hot-tempered? Afraid of her own basement? These might be seen as flaws, but they don't have to be outright bad traits. Think also of the ways a character indulges in self-sabotage (the dieter who hides candy in her sock drawer), takes a good trait too far (is he a saver or a miser?), or tries to obscure his upbringing or cultural background (the white suburban kid who dreadlocks his hair and tells you it's iree). Finally, think of the traits people will know only when they know us well. Everyone might know the man on the corner who is the high school football coach, who has outfitted his garage like a boxing ring, who drives a Hummer and wears the blackest sunglesses and the toughest leather coats. How many people also know that he grows and breeds show violets with his wife? How might he explain this when it becomes known, and what does it say about his self-image?
How does this relate to Johnny? We've already defined some of his core externals (pre-med, good student, etc.) and some of his shadow-self needs (status, and the ways status manifest for him). But there's more to it than this. How does Johnny want people to see him?
Johnny won't talk openly about seeing the world as a hierarchy and wanting to be as close to the top of the heap as possible. He will talk about money (which frequently masks another emotional need) and his elevated tastes. He might joke about being high maintenance. (This would be a joke to him, because we can diminish the dark part of ourselves by laughing about it.) He might use one obvious aspect of his shadow self to try to deflect attention away from the truth. Example: He might talk about his love of a good meal in a fine restaurant in terms of the food and flavors and choices, but in fact he thinks most steaks taste pretty much the same and he chose this restaurant because it's the "best" in town. There's a chance he won't admit even to himself that he would be just as happy with a Big Mac. We frequently turn a blind eye to our own shadow selves.
But this doesn't mean we can escape them. Johnny will dress and walk and talk a certain way to cultivate a certain image. Whether this effort yields success, and at what point people begin to see through it to his deeper self, is part of what makes people -- and fiction -- interesting.
So. You're a beautiful young girl at a cocktail party. You see a man, Johnny, across the room. Tell me--
1) What he is wearing.
2) What he does when you make eye contact with him.
3) How long it takes him to approach you.
4) How he approaches you.
5) What he says when he finally reaches you.
(Because, when it comes right down to it, lists of traits are nowhere near as interesting as watching a person with those traits in action. This is storytelling.)