Are we who we are from the start or do we develop as we go along with our lives? And, do characters in fiction arrive fully baked or must they grow and change in the course of a story? Yes, it’s the old NATURE versus NUTURE debate. But this time, the focus is on fictional characters and not the development of real people.
The protagonists (and the supporting cast) in mystery series often start with strong backstories that develop along logical lines as the books progress. Life, fictional and otherwise, throws situations at characters that cause them to change—or at least adjust—to altered circumstances. How characters respond to challenges—drama, trauma, violence, etc.—is the measure of their personality and the adaptability of the character.
Real people usually adapt, simply because they don’t have much of a choice. It’s move with the situation or be left behind. There are some famous “left behind” characters: think Miss Havisham in Dickens’ ‘Great Expectation.’ She’s basically stuck on the day of her wedding. The ultimate jilted bride, the rest of her life is a direct result of never moving beyond that moment.
We all know people in real life who are “stuck” in one way or another. The man who can’t give up on the woman who rejected him; the woman that never gets over her missed career opportunity; the fatal choice that “limited” a life’s ambitions…. There are countless examples. In fiction, it’s interesting to focus on the choice, the incident or the moment in time that points a character in a particular direction. Like Miss Havisham’s disappointment, it’s a dramatic juncture in time that dictates the path of her story.
I can point to certain moments in my life that sent me on detours. One in particular was an experience that robbed me of the confidence I had as a little girl, made me shy, and hesitant. I still struggle with shyness—although most people don’t see that when they meet me now. As a character in fiction, I’d have a “hole” in my backstory that I work to fill in. In that sense, a character based on me would be a better detective than a killer or victim.
Good to know I’m writing from the write perspective!