character shape


The free-spirited spirit animal you see above is yours truly as a five-year-old. Maybe six. Too free-spirited to check the labels on home videos.

Anyway! Today I spent a huge portion of the day being sick and useless, and then the last few hours writing background for my six lead characters and thinking about how personalities are formed. How much comes from nature and how much from nurture. I used myself as a model since I know me, and I want to know my characters even better than I know myself (because how well do we know ourselves really? <–today’s deep question).

What was I born with, and what was the result of my upbringing and the people surrounding me?

If I were reincarnated into a different family in a different culture, what about me would be the same as it is now?

No idea! 😀

In this life, I grew up with two grandmothers, a mother, a father, an older sister, and an older brother.

Both grandmothers lived the majority of their adult lives divorced and widowed respectively, and raised their children on their own. Both were headstrong, proud women, and both died before I was twelve. But it’s a testament to how influential they were in my life that I still remember them clearly, as if they had lived much longer.

My mother’s mother was born in Ireland. So was my mother, for that matter. My grandfather worked in a factory, where he contracted lung cancer from the fumes. He died when my mother was eight years old. My grandmother, in one of the most courageous acts I can imagine, packed her life up, left her home country, and took her three young children to America to continue life in a new place. She supported her three children working, if I remember family lore correctly, as a seamstress. She never remarried, nor – according to my mother – showed any desire to. She was a devout Catholic all her life, and I remember every Palm Sunday she would make a cross out of palm leaves to hang over her bed. One year she gave one to me and I still have it somewhere. Another year, I thought she needed to get out in the sun more often, but I knew she wanted to stay inside, so I told her there was something amazing to see and then I cleverly locked us out of the house. When I proudly revealed my intentions on the driveway of our mountaintop house, she did not chuckle fondly and suggest a game for us to play the way the people on TV would have. Instead, she made me climb through a window to get us back inside. (Since I enjoy a hermit’s lifestyle myself from time to time, I can now see what a demonic thing I’d done to that poor woman.) She died when I was eight.

My father’s mother was a New Yorker. One of her jobs was teaching math in a Bronx high school and the woman was made of steel. She met my Texan grandfather at a USO dance, and they married and had my father. Then, according to family lore, my grandfather said, “It is now time to move to Texas,” and my grandmother said, “‘Is it now,” and he said, “Yes…?” and so my grandmother divorced him. I’m sure there were other issues there, but there are too many versions of the story flying around, so I’m going with the basics. Besides, paraphrasing family history is fun. Anyway, my paternal grandmother and I had a fun dynamic. My favorite memory of her goes like this:

PARENTS: Goodbye, seven-year-old child! We leave you with your grandmother.
SELF: Please don’t do that.
GRANDMOTHER: Excuse you?
PARENTS: See you in a few hours!
SELF: I am only seven-or-maybe-eight! Don’t leave me!
DOOR: [closes]
GRANDMOTHER: …You were saying?
SELF: …May I have a sandwich?
GRANDMOTHER: Yes, you may. Go sit down and I’ll bring one to you.
SELF: [sits in living room chair in front of the TV]
GRANDMOTHER: [makes sandwich, carries plate out to the living room, moves card table in front of SELF’s chair, places plate on table] What do you say?
SELF: Thank you. [notices something heinous] Um, Grandma?
GRANDMOTHER: [sitting down on the sofa] Yes?
SELF: [relives many, many memories of complaints and their outcomes] Nothing. [stares at offensive sandwich]
SELF: [watches sandwich]
GRANDMOTHER: [glances over] What’s wrong with the sandwich?
SELF: …I don’t like peanut butter.
SELF: [stares at GRANDMOTHER. that’s not a real question.]
GRANDMOTHER: I made that for you. Eat it.
SELF: Okay.
GRANDMOTHER: [dubiously returns to TV watching]
SELF: [does not eat the sandwich. fidgets. is bored. starts to push the card table away to stand up.]
SELF: [sits]
GRANDMOTHER: [mutes the TV. no loss. show was boring anyway.] You asked me for a sandwich, you didn’t specify what kind. Now you’ll eat the food I made for you, and you’re not getting out of that chair until you do, do you understand?
SELF: [glowers]
GRANDMOTHER: [is better at it]
SELF: [relents. sulks. according to terms, can either remain in chair and not eat or eat and leave chair. chooses to remain in chair. bored and restless, but free of toxic peanut butter.]
TIME: [marches on]
PARENTS: We’re home!
SELF: SWEET ESCAPE CLAUSE! [runs from chair to saviors]
GRANDMOTHER: She has to eat this before she leaves.
SELF: …No I don’t?
MOTHER: Ah, she doesn’t like peanut butter.
SELF: [triumphant beaming smile]
GRANDMOTHER: …I’m not making food for you anymore.

My paternal grandmother was a very strong woman, and almost the definition of independent. Many people remember her as difficult, and as you can tell from the above – one of my favorite memories of her – I didn’t get along with her all the time, either. Some say she went looking for battles to fight, and others say she just didn’t know how to choose her battles and ended up fighting at every opportunity. She had a difficult life, and she was a complex woman. As an adult, I look back on my memories of her and I can tell she would have been an enormous influence on me if she had lived longer. She died when I was eleven.

So I’m looking at this from a character-building exercise. What did I gain from each of these women? They were two extremely resilient female figures. My maternal grandmother spent most of my childhood living with us and enduring my well-intentioned child-ness, and my paternal grandmother visited frequently. I watched how they interacted with my parents, with my siblings, with each other, and with strangers, and even though I wasn’t at all aware of it at the time, they were teaching me.

My characters will be influenced just as much by their families, once I’m done with them. (Mwahaha.)

I want to give my focus characters a truly hideous amount of complexity. One of my biggest challenges in writing original work is that I’m coming from a background of writing fanfiction, where the world comes pre-made, so I’m admittedly a bit daunted by the task of creating something from scratch. I’m used to having complex characters presented to me, and then I analyze them so I can better understand how they’d react in various situations I want to write them in. The challenge of original work for me is in creating characters I love that are as detailed and complex as the fictional characters I fell in love with to the point that I wanted to continue their stories on my own beyond the source material.

So here’s my thought: family is where a character begins. The overabundance of one or the lack of one. Are they well-off? Are they artists? Is there only one parent? Is one parent a gorilla and the other a refrigerator? (I’m only half kidding – I kind of want to write that story now.) What about the grandparents? Where did they come from? What were their beliefs as young adults? How have their beliefs changed over time?

Tomorrow’s goal is to create some family lore for my characters.




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