How Parents Can Shape Characters

Yesterday, I started riffing on the importance of knowing how characters were shaped through their interactions with other people. Today I’m going to start with the obvious movers and shapers: the parents.

Now, before I get into the details, a point of definition: for the purpose of this article, I am defining the parent as the person(s) most responsible for the raising of the character. For purposes of this article, blood has next to nothing to do with it; personality traits may be heritable, but what we’re discussing is the shaping of the character that comes from having been an authority at the character’s most impressionable age, having dealt with being under the same roof as her for significantly prolonged periods of time, and in general being an influence on her development. As a result, there are four areas in which the parent is likely to have a strong influence on the character: communication style, skills and interests, the understanding of gender, societal and family roles, and last but not least, the character’s view of authority.

View of authority is, in itself, one of the most affected traits. The character is likely to associate parental behavior with a generalized image of how Those In Charge behave, and, conversely, her parents’ expectations of their reactions with how she’s supposed to behave towards those in Charge. If parent and child got along, the character is likelier to respond well to a style of authority similar to the parent’s. If they didn’t, it’s likelier that the character will be resistant to the style, anywhere from obedient but resentful to out and out rebellious. And when parents have different styles, the character’s likely to have learned a thing or two about how to deal with those styles and play them against each other. Then we have the ones who were pushed so hard into cooperating with a style that just seeing bits of it is enough to ensure utter cooperation; it’s not always a happy picture, but it’s plausible.

Skills and interests are also pretty easy to figure out in terms of the parents. It’s common for writers to create kids who are either near-copies of their parents in terms of skills and interests, or practical opposites, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I do think that a character is likelier to have opinions on the skills, interests and professions of her parents than on other skills and professions, particularly if the parents encouraged her to follow those (after all, she’s probably got a pretty good idea what the advantages and downsides of cultivating them are, and has likely observed or tried most of them at least once). If there are two parents, there’s going to be pulling between what each of them wants to see; the character might go one way, might go the other, is perfectly likely to get sick of it and take a third option, or just might end up deciding on something else entirely. But there’s going to be an influence, however it works out.

Then we have communication style, particularly confrontation style. This one’s parent-influenced on a very strong but often subconscious level; people have been known not to figure out how they’d had their styles shaped until long past adulthood. See, parents and their offspring are in part defined by having had to live with each other for quite a while. When two people spend a long time under the same roof, they’re almost definitely having to communicate, and it’s pretty much a guarantee that there are going to be conflicts—between parent and child for one, or between parent and someone else where the child can see. And the child will be watching. They might learn what they should do from what another parent does or doesn’t do (or from what an older sibling does; you ever wonder why the stereotype is that the older sibling is likelier to get in fights with the parent exists?). Or they might just generalize what they see—interpreting a parent’s action as having a particular significance, then adapting that to their own relations.

Speaking of which—gender and societal roles. Now there’s a can of worms if there ever was one. Most of what we see, and the reason why so many people are so obsessed with preventing anything that would result in not having a mother and a father in every household, is each parent modeling to the child the role of said parent’s gender; even in circumstances where that isn’t the case, there might be differential treatment according to gender. Similarly, in watching interactions both within the family and between the family and outsiders (most effectively the parents, as the parents are The Ones With the Power), the character will probably be picking up a thing or two about how she, eventually, is supposed to interact with those people—being polite to this group, laughing at this one behind their backs, pretending this one doesn’t exist, actively being afraid of this one. (You’ve got to be carefully taught, after all!)

So even if the parent isn’t still around, it’s good to know who the parent was, as that’s going to determine a lot about the offspring. I’m sure I missed a few impacts; anyone want to fill me in?

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