No Character Is an Island

Way back in February, I ranted against characters who have no roots to speak of: the ones who didn’t seem in any way to have been shaped by other people. I’d originally been going to start on this series then, but I got a little distracted explaining why characters with no current connections are not more likely to establish new ones than characters who already have a few. So, back to characters being shaped through their connections.

First off, why? I’ve always seen the question more as “why not?” After all, people don’t live in a vacuum; anyone who has language has to at some point have interacted with someone, probably several someones. If they were housed and raised for most of their childhoods—or any portion of childhood that they can remember—they have parent-figures or some facsimile, and the parent-figures will almost definitely have had an impact. If they have culture, they have to have gotten it from someone; if they reject culture, there’s probably a reason why that’s more than just “It sounded like a good idea at the time.” In sum, this person has been exposed to people, and those people have rubbed off on her. Why wouldn’t she show signs of that?

Second, by whom? Again, this is a question that begs its opposite: “By whom wouldn’t they?” Sure, most people look at the idea of characters shaping other characters and see tutelage or emulation, the whole “I wanna be her when I grow up!” or “This is what my mother/father/guardian taught me.” But it’s just as likely to be created by dislike—someone seeing a behavior and choosing to do the exact opposite, or trying to act in a way that eradicates the behavior, or just trying to get away from it, for instance. It doesn’t need to be this extreme, but there are going to be those sorts of factors. Parents, or parental equivalents? Definitely. Rest of the family. Of course. Friends. Absolutely. Mentors? You bet. Antagonists? Yep. Intriguing drifters with potentially interesting talents? Sure.

Third, when? A lot of the character’s shaping is going to have happened before she so much as sets foot onstage, but that doesn’t mean all of it. Development is an ongoing process, after all—some characters have an arc they’re supposed to follow, some characters find their changes in who they interact with, but either way there’s almost guaranteed to be change. Conflicts cause people to bend or to stiffen, new information brings out new aspects of the personality—you can’t expect them to walk around in a little 5′x5′ glass box, now, can you?

As in all things, there is the potential for overkill. Shinali pointed out to me today, when I was brainstorming, that sometimes a character will be created entirely by relationships, and that that isn’t any better than a character who doesn’t have any. And that’s true. How many characters have we seen who were designed solely as love interests or rescue objects (or both at once), and turned out little better than cardboard cutouts, or didn’t seem like they existed when they weren’t onscreen? I’m sure you’ve seen the type.

That leaves us with the question: what kinds of effects are these other characters going to have, and how is it likely to affect the focus character? And that, my friends, is what this week is for.

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