Author August: Alexandra Oliva – Personality Shifts

To view all guest author posts so far and for a chance to win a £40 Foyles Giftcard visit the Author August Page.

I’ve long been fascinated by how individuals will adapt their personalities to fit the group they’re in. For example, when I’m with my family I tend to be rather straight-faced; my “job” is to keep them focused on the task at hand, and my sense of humor swings toward dry—even caustic.

Ali Oliva - credit Audrey Guidi With my college friends, however, I’m the clown. My “job” is puns and self-effacing humor and ridiculous I-think-I’m-funny-do-you-think-I’m-funny grins. Neither of these roles is less me than the other, and neither is insincere. My personality swings toward these roles without thought, filling some unconsciously perceived opening in the group dynamic.


I think most people experience similar personality shifts, and this phenomenon was something I wanted to explore in my debut novel, The Last One. I do so by presenting the main character—Zoo—at two extremes of her personality. At one extreme we have the taping of a wilderness survival reality show in which she was cast as the happy-go-lucky contestant who is always up for a challenge. She’s chipper and charismatic and fully intent on charming her way to victory. At the other extreme we have her alone, weeks later, broken, angry and scared—doing whatever she can to just keep moving.


I loved the idea of presenting these two versions of Zoo at either side of a gap in time and offering a mystery: What happened during that time that was so horrible it pushed her from one extreme of her personality to the other? Thus we have the reality show narrative pushing forward toward that gap in time—with the show growing ever more twisted and challenging—while Zoo pushes toward home, moving away from that event even as she seeks to understand it.


9780718182502 (3)Zoo. An odd name, right? One of my favorite things about writing The Last One was exploring the reduction of character that occurs on the typical reality TV show. The style of storytelling most prevalent on reality TV is one that—it seems to me—strives for simplicity. These shows seek to create the kind of drama that results from reducing complicated individuals to types, and then setting those types against one another. Zoo was cast as a chipper, animal-loving woman who tries really hard. The makers of the show don’t care about her as an individual; they care about her only as a type. Even her name reflects this: Zoo doesn’t work at a zoo. She works with animals, but not at a zoo. This distinction is unimportant to those in charge.

The same thing occurs with each contestant to some extent: Each is reduced to a single defining aspect in the eyes of the show’s makers, and then the show is edited to confine them to that role. Some contestants fight against their casting, others embrace it, and some aren’t even aware they’ve been cast as a type at all. There are parallels here: our personalities shift depending on the role we feel we need to feel in our individual social circles, and others’ perception of us is highly dependent on the roles they want us to fill.


Personalities are dynamic. It’s easy to pretend otherwise. It’s easy to think someone is just the funny one, or just the nice one, or just the mean one. But we all have it in ourselves to fill all three of those roles—and countless others—depending on who we’re with and the circumstances we find ourselves in. At least I know I do. And Zoo certainly does too.

Alexandra Oliva

A graduate of Yale University, Alexandra Oliva grew up in a small town deep in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School University and undertook intensive wilderness survival training while researching The Last One. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their brindled mutt, Codex. The Last One is her first novel.


My personal thanks to Alexandra for taking part in Author August!

To view all guest author posts so far and for a chance to win a £40 Foyles Giftcard visit the Author August Page.

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *