What makes good characters tick? The question has been on my mind quite a bit lately as I evaluate whether or not my current project is going how I intended. One area I feel I may be falling short is characterization. So as much for my own benefit as for anyone else’s I want to take a closer look at characters for a post or two.
One of the most fundamental elements of character is they come from someplace. (Yes, “Well duh!” Indulge me a moment longer.) While the “nature vs. nurture” debate continues, as writers we should probably acknowledge the importance of both. Characters don’t just happen. Their families, their neighborhoods, the communities, their worlds—even their region of space may all play a part in shaping who they are.
Consider Frodo from “The Lord of the Rings”. He is a hobbit, which means he is one of a people who love nature (at least in domesticated form), good food, a good pipe, and quiet, genial conversation. They live uncomplicated lives, and care little for the world beyond their borders. They care little for adventure, and aren’t likely to do much fighting outside a pub or a buffet table.
But Frodo is also a Brandybuck, and the adopted heir of Bilbo Baggins. The Brandybucks have always been a more outgoing, vigorous sort of hobbit, less timid and more open to new things. And Bilbo, well, he is about as adventurous and well-traveled as a hobbit gets, and some of that is bound to rub off on Frodo.
Just in that little examination of his environment we see a potential internal conflict for Frodo. He loves the quiet life in the Shire, even if he’s a bit more disposed to roaming the countryside than most. He is equally drawn to and afraid of the world outside the borders. He would love to see some of the places he’s heard about, but not just yet. It takes a threat to his beloved Shire to convince him to leave it, but he’s at least willing to entertain the idea that leaving is even possible.
This unusual background also makes Frodo an excellent protagonist. Thanks to his Uncle Bilbo’s stories he’s not entirely a fish out of water beyond the borders of the Shire, but he lacks practical experience. We can experience through him the discovery of this larger world while not questioning his ability to function within it.
Even in stories about outsiders experiencing a new world, such as Avatar or Gulliver’s Travels, the characters come from somewhere, and that shapes who they are and how they respond to the new experiences they go through. Dances With Wolves describes the journey of a soldier from familiar Western culture into Indian culture. Could the story have turned out the same if he had been a native from a different tribe? A French trapper? A Spanish Conquistador? Where he comes from in life is as important to the story as where he goes.
It could be argued that the environment of Jane Austen’s famous novels is 80% of the book. The characters are a direct product of their surroundings. In most cases the conflict arises from the characters’ interaction with the society in which they live. Social convention continually gets in the way of their getting what they truly want. And yet that same setting is part of the appeal. We adore the grace and civility of the period while chafing along with our protagonists under the restrictions.
Writers of speculative fiction might be tempted to be jealous of writers of contemporary fiction, who bring a native familiarity to the settings in which they write, and who have readers who instinctively understand it for themselves. But do they really have an advantage? We all want our characters to stand out, while feeling real. They must be accessible to the reader, and the reader could come from practically any background.
It’s not a safe assumption that we all know the difference between the mean streets of New York and the mean streets of Los Angeles (or the mean streets of Tulsa or Taipei, for that matter) and how the differences in background would result in differences of character. Most of us don’t understand what it’s like to come from a powerful family of influence and wealth. But the author must at least be able to imagine it credibly, and must understand how those variables would impact their characters. Indeed, they should welcome those differences. It will help make their characters interesting and alive.
So how much do you need to know about your character’s environment? The cop-out—yet true—answer is ‘it depends.’ Remember, I’m the guy who is questioning whether I’m getting my characters right. So by all means, if you have some advice or thoughts on how you “get it right”, please leave a comment.
But in my pondering I’m forming the conclusion that you need to know enough that you can see that environment reflected in how your character speaks, acts, and thinks. It’s not enough to not make them act like yourself, or to avoid making them sound out of place. It needs to approach the point where the reader (and perhaps even the writer) may be surprised by something the character does, and yet on reflection realize that yes, someone in that situation with that upbringing and in that environment probably would think/act/speak/feel that way.
Of course that’s not all there is to creating good characters, either. We need to consider more than just their environment. But it’s one piece of the picture, and a good place to start.