Character Born of Location

During my discussion of perfect locations last month, I mentioned the idea of locations that reached their ideal point because of one or more of the characters present. The converse also exists—sometimes there exist characters who are brought to their full potential (or at least, framed into a version not seen anywhere else) by their location.

One thing to consider, in circumstances like that, is whether the location-dependent self is due to more of an interior or exterior facet of the character in question. To put it more simply, is a mask being put on or taken off? Is this version of the character a facade created to adapt to the environment, or is it a part of the character’s inner self that in this particular situation it is safe, advantageous or otherwise favorable to reveal?

Another question is how much the character actually changes. Yes, sometimes the character’s behavior and presentation adjust dramatically to a change of environment, but other times the character’s doing mostly the same things, but the level of suitability to the environment in question changes dramatically, creating a more apparently contrast. Think about how normal childish behavior is just fine at a preschool but not at a concert, or how a level of rigidity that makes perfect sense on a military base among ranking soldiers can seem stilted or jarring when directed at civilians in an informal setting. There might not even be a behavioral contrast at all, just a visual one!

If a character’s location-dependent self is more of a facade than of a hidden depth, there has to be some reason: people don’t generally just facade out of nowhere. What sorts of pressures is the character under? What—as there is almost invariably something—is she afraid of? Is she trying to hide something that she is, attempting to be something she isn’t, or just trying to be someone else in general? Is there someone in particular she might be hiding from who causes this effect, or is she like this for everyone?

While the exterior location-dependent self is an adaptation to pressures, a more interior-based location-dependent self is usually a response to the absence of pressures. It might simply be that the character feels safe enough to let the aspect in question show forth; in some cases it might even be that the environment encourages her to do so. In other cases, it’s not a matter of safety but a matter of suitability; there’s something she does well, but only here is she particularly permitted to do it.

Why allow a location to turn a character into what might as well be a new person? It allows people to see facets of the character, to obtain new insights into the forces that shape her and how she deals with them, and can serve as a surprise for the unwary member of the audience. In fact, it seems to me that a more important question for dealing with any given character is “Why not do it?”

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