A structural analysis approach to Narrative Portraits

The structural narrative analysis approach to Narrative Portraits is designed to help researchers identify five key points – (a) characters; (b) time; (c) orientation in space and circumstances; (d) key events/turning points; and (e) intersection of phenomena – with the ultimate goal of helping researchers to organise their data and systematise the analytic process.

This methodological approach gives a glimpse into the lives of the people who participated in my study on gay men’s identities. By presenting their life stories, I discuss some of the findings that I identified through the narrative analysis of their interviews. In the text below I provide an example of a narrative portrait produced through this approach. This illustrates a possible product of this method. I have selected the participant Gustav (pseudonym), for three main reasons. First, his life story is strongly linked to the core elements of my research inquiry, namely the intertwinement of identity with their erotic and romantic relationships. Secondly, Gustav’s life story engaged with themes that were ‘unusual’ in the sense that the angles from which participants talked about them have not been explored in the literature. Thirdly, the ways in which the interview with him developed provided material that is best analysed as part of extended narratives, in contrast with other participants whose narratives comprised shorter stories best suited for a cross-sectional analysis.


When I was 12 years old, I used to dream a lot about boys… That we would be kidnapped and we would go to this island and there would be only boys. But there were not sexual, erotic dreams, there would be of being one of the crowd, where I would be welcome to the community of men. But it could be… because I was feeling so much the odd one out at school. I found it very, very, very difficult to identify or to make friends with my peers. I used to cry very easily. It could be that my sort of attraction to boys, wasn’t actually a sexual attraction to boys; it was a desire to be one of the crowd. But I would say that that was sort of the beginning of… of an interest, when I was interested more in boys than in girls.

In my childhood I was overprotected. My parents are divorced, I did not know my father so I was one of those boys who would have no paternal influence. That –I think– contributed a lot to the sexual confusion I was going to experience in later life. But there was another aspect; apart from the fact that my mother was very domineering, she also had this thing about speaking against my father, so that whatever I did, even if I stack up for myself: “It’s like your father!” So I became like a cat who was declawed. I had nothing to defend myself because gradually, as I grew up, I didn’t know how to stick up for myself. I had been so badly discouraged and so badly hurt, my boyhood was, I think, a bit of a mess.

When I was in university… my life started to change. I started to know more what I wanted of myself… academically and sexually… I went to this course on personal skills. And I said: “Yes, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Forget accounts and economics”. And in fact, it is what I have done: interpersonal skills… How to communicate, how to be assertive, how to help people being better than they are. From there I started to get a lot of confidence. This was the University of Malta. Now, sexually, all of a sudden, I became sexually alive. It was a bit of a mess. Not a bit of a mess, a lot of a mess. My first sexual encounter was with a man. I had gone on my own to this seminar in Brussels, and I went to this gay bar. I think it was a state of madness because I had already tried in Malta but in Malta I was shy. I went to the door, but I never went in –there was only one, ‘potters’ it was called– and I never… I never had the courage to go into the gay bar. Then, I was in Brussels, so I got chatting to this taxi driver –was a young guy– and told him: “Take me to a gay bar”. And he did.

But who am I today? Today I would say I’m a married man. I have two children who I love with all my heart. I have a wife that, despite all the difficulties we have, I still love her. It’s not a romantic love, this is not a sexual love, in our case. And I will carry on loving her. I want to remain married to her. You might tell me: “But you will have these temptations, which come every so often, about other men.” Yes, they’re going to be there, I have to learn to live with them… I have to go on. There might be a time when I may fail again, like I did when… with my friend. And I’ll have to accept that… She was very angry. And very hurt. She couldn’t understand that it’s just… Just, it’s… Yes, I might fail. Today I’m speaking like this. And tomorrow… I [might] see a guy; I really like him, he really likes me… I have to have the strength to say, to say: “No”. I’m not properly gay, ironically enough. Now, you might tell me: “But Gustav, are you trapped?” When I’m hypersexualized, that’s how I feel. When I’m fantasizing a lot about men, etcetera, etcetera, I feel very trapped. I have no plans, no real, concrete plans to say: “Listen, I’m going to leave my wife and I’m going to find a man”, because it’s the opposite. I wanna stay there, no matter what, come what may. And I think this is actual love, this is about leaving everything for the other person. This is where I am. And now you’d ask me: “Hey Gustav, are you happy in life?” Yes, I am happy in life, funnily enough, with all these thoughts, with all these fantasies. Tonight I’m going to skype with my children. I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to speak with my wife. She’ll be cold but I want to speak to her. I want her to come here.

“Gustav” imagined portrait by Eleonora Scalise
Pastel oil colour on cardboard, 60x84cm, 2019, Edinburgh