Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Characters and their backgrounds

I've been thinking a lot about characters and their background recently, and I've been pondering between nature vs nurture.

It amazes me how people can grow up relatively similar lives and lead such different paths. A few weeks ago, I was watching a news program (may have been 60 Minutes), and they talked about two men from similar neighborhoods. One man turned out to have graduated college. The other was incarcerated. Both men grew up in and around gang violence, but the one managed to rise above it. And, coincidentally, these two men had the same name, first and last.

Did one man receive more nurturing than the other? Did one have family and friends to help him get out of that life? It turned out that the one did, but it might be more to it.

Another story I heard (most likely on 60 Minutes again) mentioned a school in the DC area that helped underpriveleged youth. Most of these inner city kids end up going on to college, if they continue with the program, but this one boy said that he didn't know if he could give up his old friends. This boy had already been shot at least once. Yet, he couldn't let it go, despite being given all these opportunities. For this example, I believe his nature is overriding his nuture.

In literature, I think of the Harry Potter series as a clear example on nature vs nurture in Harry Potter and Tom Riddle aka Lord Voldemort. Both grew up as orphans. Tom entered an orphanage where he found power in tormenting the other orphans. Although, I would say that Harry had it almost worse living with the Dursleys. At least Tom had a real room and didn't live in a cupboard under the stairs! Yet, both took drastically different paths. In their example, I can only think that nature had it a bit over nurture.

As I mentioned previously in the blog, we found a new kitten and kept him. He's doing very well and is just the sweetest thing. Romeo's situation was similar to my cat Cinderella's, though.

In August 2006, Rexy arrived at our house with five baby kittens that were around four weeks old. Rexy is a cat we had for a while, but she preferred the life of a stray, except when it came to having her kittens in our barn. These five babies were so adorable, yet we were getting overrun with cats. These kittens were shy and timid and not the most friendly of kittens because they hadn't been around humans. Cinderella was especially timid, yet we fell in love with the little kitten with a smudge under her nose. So, it came time where we had to send them to the SPCA, since we couldn't find homes for them. We kept Cinderella and stripped her of her brothers and sisters and mama. She wasn't alone, though. We still had a few too many cats at the time.

After almost four years, Cinderella is still shy and timid. She loves me. She likes my mom. She tolerates my dad. And, she's scared of my sister most of the time. And, strangers...don't even get me on strangers. She HATES them. They scare her to death. She'll hide until long after they're gone. Then, she is still freaked out for a good day or more after they leave. She's an anxious little kitty. She thrives on routine and not allowing people in the house beyond the immediate family. And, she makes a good reason for me not to date. *winks*

Then, you have Romeo. He's around five weeks old, we assume. Until the Sunday evening before last, he had no human interaction. He watched as his siblings and possibly his mother were burned alive (by accident...tragic accident). Another sibling was accidentally beheaded. Yet, Romeo is the sweetest, most good-natured kitten there is. When we saw him for the first time, he cried and ran toward us as fast as his little legs would allow. He comes when he is called. He loves to play and curl up against you to sleep. He's scared of no one, so far.

Like Cinderella, he lost his family. He had no interaction with humans for the first month of his life, and yet, he is a people-kitty, where as Cinderella is a one-woman cat.

I find it fascinating how different the two are, even though I love both of them.

To bring this around to characters and backgrounds, I am going back to my main character Yssa in The Phoenix Prophetess. In early 2006, I came up with the idea of this novel and the character Yssa. I mulled over the idea. Daydreamed about it. Wrote down a few names here and there. Drew a map. I kept putting it away. Never writing a single word down of an actual story. Then, in January 2009, I sat down and began to write. Nine months later, the first draft was finished.

I haven't done many edits on the story lately, though, and it is for one reason. The girl that I knew for three years before I even began writing has changed now. To make a better story, I took out three chapters in the beginning and created two new ones to replace them. The three chapters took place when she was five and then nine in the last chapter. I made her twelve in the new chapters, awaiting the time of her thirteenth birthday, which was a day away. The other chapters still happened to the character, but they weren't important for the story. The Yssa in these two new chapters is a different Yssa than in the first draft. She's a happier Yssa, not as scarred by her circumstances. When I got into editing the chapter after the new chapters, she seemed so changed and foreign to me, so I stopped editing and put it away for other things. I'm trying to figure her out again.

Her nuture remained the same, yet her nature was different. It was amazing and a bit terrifying. What do I do with these new aspects in her character? I'm not certain yet, but I'll figure it out. Slowly, I'll get back into edits for The Phoenix Prophetess, and I'll have to deal with the fact that characters can change. Circumstances and who they are deep down can impact them immensely.

I still don't know which changes a character or person more...nature vs nurture. Some days, it is 60/40. Others, it is 55/45...and I'm sure there are others were it is 50/50. Maybe it depends upon the circumstances and who they are. Maybe it is just luck or chance or something else entirely. I don't know exactly, but I do know that sometimes you have to listen to the characters and truly find out who they are before you find out more how they react to a situation.

Has anyone else gone back to a manuscript and find a character changed in unexpected ways?


Nicole Zoltack said...

It's amazing how our characters really do take on a life of their own. There are times when I want a particular scene to go one way, but the characters balk and fight it, because I might be asking them to go outside their comfort zone or try to force them into a behavior that might be a little against their personality's. In those cases, I usually find myself blocked until I give in and write how my characters want the story to go. Sometimes they know themselves better than I do, lol

And I love the new blog background!

Cherie Reich said...

I completely agree with you, Nicole. Characters have minds of their own, and they'll tell you if you are doing something they don't like!

Thanks for liking the new background. I wanted to try something new that reflected my writing (fantasy, horror, mystery).

Aubrie said...

Wow, what a beautiful background for your blog! It looks amazing!

I definitely think that how a character grows up can affect who they become. I'm trying to deepen my characters, and knowing their background really helps. Great post!

Lisa Rusczyk said...

What a great post. I wonder about this too. My brother and I are completely different in our lifestyles, but similar in our belief systems.

My characters almost always surprise me. They take over the job a lot!