In the previous installment of the Crafting a Character series, we took a look at how characters think and behave in the present. What usually shapes those behaviours and attitudes is their past.
Backstory is the cornerstone of all character development because it’s in the past where almost the entire identity of a person is formed. Whether you’re creating the backstory of a character, or looking at your own history, the past has a ton of answers for your questions about the present and the future.
Why Can’t You Just Let It Go?
Main Shaping and Influencing Incidents:
Usually in childhood, but not always, we’ve all had significant moments in our lives where our views of the world and of ourselves were changed forever. These incidents range from being tragic, comical, or inspiring. Either way, discovering the life changing events in your own life, or creating one for your character, can drastically improve your understanding of what may drive a person to behave the way they do in the present.
In a classic episode of The Simpsons, the family wants to go on vacation, but when their plane is about to take off, the family learns that Marge has a fear of flying. “Let me off the plane,” she says and then starts pacing down the aisle back and forth.
“Let me off! Let me off! Let me off!”
Marge starts going to therapy and at the end of the episode, she uncovers childhood memories she must have locked away for years.
She recalls thinking that her father was a pilot, and child Marge follows him into a plane to find out that he was a stewardess–which was a rare occupation for men in the 60’s–and the embarassment of her father working a woman’s job apparently traumatizes her into having a fear of flying.
There were a few more adverse memories she recalled, and those were the ones that seemed more logical in explaining why she had the fear, but I won’t go into detail about them here. Just watch the episode, it’s hilarious!
Can you recall any traumatic events that have fundamentally wounded you for life? Or do you have any memories of being significantly inspired by someone that motivate you to this day? How have any of these influencing incidents impacted the way you behave in your present life?
Relationship With the Family:
Your family is your first experience of what it’s like to be in a social circle, particularly in your formative years. The way you relate and interact with your extended family helps you develop the social skills (or lack thereof) that which you bring in to the rest of society, be it at school, post-secondary education, work, and the market place.
More importantly, your parents’ marriage vastly influences your ideas of love, marriage, and friendship. And depending on the bond you have with your parents–whether it’s strong, weak, or non existant–you’re automatically subjugated to either replicating or replacing your experience of them.
The nameless narrator in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk grew up, for the most part, without a father. So when he befriends the wise and witty renegade Tyler Duren, he looks up to him as a father figure.
When they start living together, Tyler gets into a sexual relationship with Marla Singer, a woman the nameless narrator met at a bunch of support groups. This becomes a recreation of the narrator’s childhood in that he never sees Tyler and Marla in the same room together, and becomes the middleman of their interactions–thus recreating his experience with his parents before they got divorced.
Furthermore, the underground Fight Club would not be possible had its members had their fathers around, or meaningful bonds with them if they were around for their childhoods. It’s well established among psychological circles that fatherlessness causes a variety of societal and psychological problems.
What template for romance have your parents imprinted for you? What relationship do you have with your extended family? How have these affected your mode of interaction with the rest of society?
Where They Grew Up:
From your country of origin, to your economic status growing up, and your childhood home, where you grew up also greatly defines how you’ll fit in to the rest of society.
In West Philadelphia, born and raised, is where the Fresh Prince spent most of his days. But as you know by the title sequence theme song, he got in one little fight and his mom got scared, so he moved in with his uncle and auntie in Bel-Air.
What made this sitcom so great was how Will Smith’s care free and eccentric hood mentality clashed with the prestigious and more “dignified” culture of upper class Los Angeles.
This made for an interesting conflict with Will trying to behave in a way that was acceptable to the culture, while also staying true to himself. Though, the funniest parts of Fresh Prince for me was when he was free to be himself around rich and pretigious people, and they welcomed him with open arms, thus showing that cultural division can be torn down if both parties are willing to be friendly.
Are your current living conditions different from how you grew up? If so, what has this contrast done for your sense of identity? If not, was it a conscious choice to remain comfortable with the familiar or do you intend on breaking the cultural barrier?
Stay tuned for Crafting a Character Part 3: A Better Tomorrow