Fully Baked Characters

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!

Me at the beach a long, long time ago!

Me at the beach a long time ago!



  1. Hey! You were a little blondie. 🙂

    I’m incapable of seeing people as anything less than the end result of nurture working on nature. We’re all born with traits based on our genes. In a warm, loving environment those traits may be given full rein to develop and grow. In an impoverished environment, artistic traits may be subordinated to those required for survival.

    It’s that interplay between what is possible [i.e. nature/DNA] and what is allowed [nurture/environment] that makes each of us unique. A character that doesn’t change in some way during a story is not that interesting.

    The change doesn’t have to be big and flashy. It can be something small that has held the character back, such as something she may not be aware of, or unprepared to face. But change of some sort is necessary, imho. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      In fiction, we’re attracted to the BIG changes, the monumental, dramatic movements in a character that are spawned by one incident. I real life, nurture takes time. Good things, and some bad things too, happen at the pace of water wearing away a rock. Most change happens without our conscious observations. BUT in fiction, the storyteller can make the dramatic moment turn a life around and around and around with multiple adventures.

      No wonder so many people think real life is boring. Are they looking for the dramatic pace of an action novel? Um… real life’s pace is slower, but a dash of REALITY, the real nature/nurture can create credibility in the incredible! Good news for science fiction authors!

      • Very true, and that’s one reason I love sci-fi – I can place characters in extreme situations that accelerate change from the glacial to the ‘visible’.

        • Candy Korman

          I think that satisfying fiction is always bigger, better, more dramatic than reality. Visible changes fit that bill.

  2. Plus, depending on the character a type of change that could be small to most people can be big given that character’s mental makeup. The psychology of conditioning will always be a fascinating subject, and it’s taken me over twenty years to realize many of the ways I’ve been conditioned. We are always growing and changing, and sometimes those changes come fast. Others they come slow.

    • Candy Korman

      And some changes come with conscious effort on the part of the individual, while other changes are from direct influence. For years, I’ve been fascinated by gurus and other charismatic leaders. Part of it is the big, red light inside me that says “Bull Shit” while I’m nodding along on the outside, trying to figure out how I can leave the room with the least amount of fuss.

      The way we are raised/conditioned is critical. Do we go along with the crowd? Speak up in defense of those being hurt? Run screaming from the room? Become an acolyte? The slow changes that lead to quick decisions in particular moments are interesting in life and critical in fiction.