Children tend to look like their parents. You’ve probably noticed this. Not only that, but they tend to act like them, too. For most of my life I merely attributed that to developmental nurturing, I assumed that people just tended to become like those they spent most of their time around. Undoubtedly that is true to a great degree, but it was remarkable to me when my wife and I first met our son how many of our personality traits and temperaments he already possessed, even before he could have learned them from us through direct experience.
I guess that makes sense. Why would we assume that the only things we pass on through our heredity are the physical attributes like facial structure and eye color? And so I believe that people have both a spark of individuality that is all their own, and then are added upon by all the people that are most important in their lives.
This is an important consideration in crafting a character for a story. I’m sure you’ve heard that it is that each character in your story must have their own voice, their own characterizations, to be unique and distinct from one another. That is generally good advice, but we also shouldn’t t force them to be different just for the sake of being different. If your story includes two characters that are closely tied to one another, either by family relation, or years of association, it will feel more honest for them to share personality traits that they have projected onto one another. If one character is a descendant of another, ask yourself what characteristics they might have inherited from their forebearers.
There is an excellent example of this in the Lord of the Rings with the characterization of Aragorn. I’m specifically referring to the film adaptation here, as his character is one area where the film improved on the book. Aragorn is supposed to be a king, but he has removed himself from that path because he is haunted by the idea of failure. Why? Well among his ancestry there was a former king who was guilty a great betrayal, one which plunged the world into its current sea of darkness.
Aragorn says of the matter, “The same blood flows in my veins. The same weakness.” It is clear he is not expressing a hypothesis, a mere assumption that weakness probably exists in him, rather the conviction in his voice suggests that he has personally had moments of being weak, of failing, of shunning his duty. And when in his introspection he has tried to identify why he is so flawed he has recognized this as his inheritance from his ancestor. Thus he fears making the same mistakes as those that went before, and ironically, it is in his running from his title that he self-fulfills his own fears of failing to measure up. He makes himself more into the image of his forefather by trying to avoid that very thing.
This is a wonderfully rich character, and all by delving into some soulful examinations on what has made this man and who it was that did that making.
Of course not all those that mold us are of our direct lineage. In our infancy and early childhood our parents and other direct family members are undoubtedly our greatest influence, but as we venture out into the world those initial personality traits start to get bent my new interactions. We have our mentors and friends, neighbors and coworkers. All of them rub off on us and can even forever alter the character we first began as. For better and for worse.
Typically when we use expressions like “he was a second father to me” or “she took me in like I was her own child” we often are referring to this sort of influence. We perceive that some person has remade us to be more like they are, and we signify this by assigning them a secondary-parent title. I’m not sure if there is anyone who doesn’t have these remaking characters in their lives, and it is a fascinating phenomenon to draw on in our stories.
In Les Miserables we have a harsh and fearful man in the form of Jean Valjean. He is a former convict and under the strict French regime he will always be a convict. Born in poverty and defined by his background to never amount to much. He fills that role well, even going so far as to beat and rob a priest whose only crime was showing him kindness.
When that priest responds to that cruelty with only greater kindness Jean Valjean is deeply moved and ultimately transformed. He has a moment of conflict between this new influence and this new impressions that has been made on him, then he ultimately allows himself to be remade in the likeness of that priest. He becomes devout, self-sacrificing, and generous, completely unrecognizable from the man of his origins.
It is very clever of Jean Valjean to have that moment of conflict between the two voices within him. After all, we do not typically emulate only one single persona in our lives either. We are mixed beings with a plethora of influences chattering within us. Some people even describe how those voices take the actual sound of a person that they know: a mother, a friend, a coworker. Those voices might disagree with each other, even argue. When a decision is difficult to make, we might remain at a standstill until we are able to identify which of all these competing voices really represents our own true self. Not all influences are good, after all, and at some point we have to prune ourselves to the person we really want to be.
Where do we find examples of this in stories? Actually we find them once more with Aragorn and Jean Valjean.
Aragorn is afraid of his heritage and own personal weakness. However that is not all that defines him. One mentor’s voice, that of Elrond, urges him to “Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be.” Elrond’s advice is able to strike a chord in Aragon, in no small part due to the fact that Elrond is literally a second father to him. When Aragorn’s birth father died it was Elrond who raised him as a son, and so has imprinted in the man a sense of wisdom and power. This is actually an element of the character that is better defined in the book than in the film, and is critical to understanding how and why Aragon is able to answer that call and evolve into something greater.
Jean Valjean, meanwhile, is not entirely in the clear after defeats his previous persona and turns over a new life. Throughout the rest of the tale he is haunted by the cruel guard that was set over him during his many years in prison: Javert. Javert is a manifestation of the voice in Jean Valjean that would pull him back to his former self, who tells him he can never be anything more than a convict. Javert tries to persuade Jean Valjean of this many times, and at times it is clear that Valjean is almost convinced by his arguments. It is only by constantly reaffirming his newness of soul that Valjean is able to hold onto his better life until the very end.
In conclusion, as we define the characters of our stories we ought to consider not only how they behave but also why they do so. What was their personality originally? How was that personality built on through nurturing influence? How was that then challenged by external influences? How are they, in turn, influencing others? For indeed, we cannot view influence as flowing one way only.
Parents, mentors, and friends may mold a man or woman, but they will also be molded in turn by that same individual. That’s a notion that deserves a little more elaboration, and on Thursday I will post a story that highlights this concept. Where my previous story gave a tragic tale of a father unable to connect with his son, this next one will portray a father who successfully gives to his child, but also receives from him as well. I hope to see you then.