"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Environment and Your Protagonist

Have you ever wondered how you would have turned out if you’d been born and raised in a different part of the world by different parents? Would you still behave the way you do, believe in the things you believe, have the same values, or would you be an entirely different person with an entirely different outlook on the world and an entirely different set of rules by which to live by? I would imagine a study has been done on this somewhere by someone and probably paid for with your hard-earned taxes. But all that aside, as a writer, you will want to consider your characters’ environments to help you understand who they are and why they are unique.
We often look at a past event, usually traumatic, to help define our characters in some way. This event might be the catalyst that has made them take a certain path or develop a certain opinion, emotion, or world attitude. It could even be a parent’s or sibling’s behavior that has made them determined to grow up just the opposite. A person’s entire formative years usually have the most impact on who they become later in life, but the picture is larger than one event or one driving influence. True, a person can break away from a bad childhood but something about those years will have still defined that person’s personality in some way. How the person deals with it is of utmost importance as well.
Let’s take two sisters, for example, raised on a ranch in Montana in the late 1800s. They seldom interacted with anybody but their family and a few neighbors a few times a year. Life isn’t easy out on the ranch; there are many hardships and many challenges that the family faces to carve out a living in this harsh land. One sister grows up to be completely self-reliant, loving the tall mountains and the vastness of this untamed land. She loves riding her horse along with her father and brothers, rounding up cattle and chasing wild horses. She could never imagine living anywhere else and hopes she can marry a man who will enjoy the same type of life. She can’t envision herself living in the confines of the city. For her, it would be a fate worse than death.

Her sister, however, hates being twenty miles from town. She longs for pretty dresses, the city, and sophisticated men in dapper suits. She has no desire for the rough cowboys she’s been around her entire life whom she considers uncouth at best. She doesn’t like to be involved in cattle drives or roundups and prefers to stays in the house with her mother cooking, cleaning, sewing, reading romance novels, and picking wildflowers. She resents the ranch’s isolation and the monotony of life that sees no change but that of the seasons. As soon as she’s able, she plans to leave, even if it means marrying the first man to come along who will take her away.
So how has this same environment defined each of these sisters? And why has each taken opposite ends of the spectrum? To take it one step farther, you could ask yourself what would happen to these women if they were forced to leave their comfort zones. What if the sister who loved the ranch ended up married to a rich man in the city? And the sister who wanted to go to the city ended up with a rancher she didn’t love on a nearby spread? Or take it another direction. What if they both found themselves in another country learning a few culture and a new language, forced to make a living any way they could? How would the environment of their formative years affect the way they deal with their new situation?
Environment can have a monumental impact on defining a character, but one has to ask if a person would develop the same traits had she or he been born and raised in a different environment. Are our good and bad traits inherent regardless of who raised us and where? Is it in our DNA to be honest, self-reliant, responsible, courageous, ambitious, optimistic? Or is it in our DNA to be a liar and a cheat, irresponsible, cowardly, gloomy and unsatisfied? Besides personality traits, don’t overlook the talents and skills your characters will develop that can come only from their given environment. These are also part of who they are and what they will become.
Your characters, like you, have more than one defining moment in their lives that have shaped their minds and their dreams and put them on the path they’ve chosen to follow. Despite what traits might be inherent in their DNA, the social and physical aspects of their childhood environment will have left them with attitudes, mores, and beliefs that could only come from those early formative experiences. Whether they hold onto these or rebel against them will be for you the writer to decide, but your characters will be richer if you delve deeply into the environments in which they were raised.