Warning: This is a no-edit zone….
I received an interesting question from a writer this morning that related to character. And as I worked through the psychological forces that would develop a character of that specific nature who would logically fit into her specific novel situation, given her specific personal history–a history that would foster sufficient and realistic motivation for her actions in the novel events–it became apparent that far more goes into forming our attitudes and forging those hot buttons we all have than our personal experiences.
Those are significant, no doubt about it, but we also have very real innate tendencies to craft and frame events in such a way that we don’t feel badly about ourselves. We justify our actions–whether or not they can be justified through a clear eye. And we rationalize, if that’s required to make whatever we do seem logical, reasonable, warranted and fair.
Why do we do that?
Well, there are a variety of schools of thought on this. Some say we start out in life adopting the social attitudes, morals and ethics of our family members or principle caregivers. As we grow up and our exposure to others occurs, we expand that sphere of influence. And then as adults, when our sphere of influence is at its broadest, we then revisit those attitudes, morals and ethics and beliefs passed to us by others and we examine them closely, debating and finally deciding which ones we want to keep, which ones we want to ditch or replace and what exactly we want to replace them with.
Now it’s at this point that a lot of people suffer, well, let’s call it stunted growth. They don’t want to grow up. They don’t want to accept responsibility for their own actions. So they go through a “growing process” of sorts, blaming everyone else for everything bad that’s ever happened in their lives, and every mistake they’ve made, and every problem they have had or will have in the future.
We all know people like that, I’m sorry to say. They just never quite get it that having that broadest influence as an adult opens the door beyond who did what to us as kids. We’re accountable. And responsible. And every day we make choices–some good, some not–but they are our choices and we take both the kudos and the hits for them. That’s being an adult. And the bottom line is no one reaches or survives puberty without having to deal with something.
Yet, while all of this is true, it still isn’t just those things that shape and mold us into the people we become. The truth is also in nebulous events that happen to others. In how those we respect or admire or those we want to emulate conduct themselves and their lives. People who are not necessarily in our sphere, but ones we observe from a distance.
People who inspire or repulse us. People we love or hate. People we never meet or know who might have lived in another time or distant place, but through some means touched us.
If you look at this, what you see–or what I saw–is that loving or hating has equal power to instill determination and declarations in people. Think back for a second. Do you ever recall yourself saying, “When I have kids, I’ll never do that!”
Think again. When you thought that thought, or made that comment, was in always in reaction to something that had been done to you? Your parent treating you in a way you didn’t like? It’s just as likely that you were shopping in a store and saw a stranger say or do something to his/her kid that set off an emotional reaction in you.
I remember once when I was very young–grade school at best. I found a wallet in a department store with a great deal of money in it. I debated keeping it. We were poor and that money would have been really useful. But it was wrong, and I couldn’t make myself do that. So I turned it in to a security guard posted near the front of the store. As I watched, he opened it and removed the money, shoved it into his pocket, then announced a wallet had been found. He stole the money. A man in uniform stole the money.
I was appalled, and to this day, I see this man’s face clearly. The event happened decades ago. The result walks with me today. A few years ago, I picked up a book at the grocery store, put it in the baby carrier, front part of the shopping cart with my purse. When I paid for the groceries, I missed the book. And when I loaded them into the car, I found the book and knew I hadn’t paid for it.
My first thought was, “Oh, hell. It’s just a few dollars.” But that man’s face flashed through my mind, and I got that same sick, thief feeling. So I walked back into the store with the book, waited in line for ten minutes, then explained to the cashier what happened, who called the manager and told him, and finally I paid for the book.
My ice-cream had melted in the hot car. But when it froze again I could swallow it.
Now the guard at the store didn’t know me, or me him. But decades after an incident that he isn’t aware even happened (me seeing him take that money), I’m still aware of it and emotionally reacting to it. The incident still carries impact.
Some would consider the event negative. A kid seeing a grown-up guard steal surely can’t be considered a good thing. And yet the emotional reaction the event incited in me has been positive. Many times over the years, I’ve given back money when handed the wrong amount of change, looked for rightful owners of things, and so forth.
If that incident hadn’t occurred, would I still have taken the extra pains to do so? Would stealing still be as repulsive to me? I don’t honestly know. It did happen. It is repulsive. But because I still see the man’s face clearly in my mind, and because unrelated incidents still trigger that emotional repulsion to his stealing, I’d say the impression was firmly implanted and likely does impact.
That’s the heart of why we need to consider these little, seemingly insignificant events that happen with strangers and grasp their powerful ability to motivate characters. Too often, we think of family and friends and never consider strangers as strong influences or motivators. But they are for people, and that means they can and should be for characters, too.
And that’s what’s on my mind this morning….