What makes a person who they are?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, mostly as a writer but also as a person.  If I’m going to create memorable characters, then it will help to understand what makes a person who they are and not some sort of cookie cutter version of a type.  And as my characters grow and change, I want them to still be themselves.

I look at the people in my life and, regardless of what they’ve been through, they’re still themselves.  They’ve been through changes in appearance (weight, hair color, age), changes in health, changes in financial status, changes in careers and interests.  And yet, at the end of the day, they’re still who they are. 

When I remember things about my father, a lot of the times I remember habits or quirks –  how he put eight packets of sugar in his tea or tons of pepper on his food, the chalky smell of Tums that he ate by the handful.  But all of those were related to his health issues.  Take them away and you wouldn’t change the man.  And as much as his illness was part of his daily life, I suspect that what made him who he was had nothing to do with the illness.  It just honed what was already there.

We often think about people based upon surface descriptions, but you can take all of that away and the person is still the same.  I’ve seen people go through some really horrible things in their lives and they’re still themselves at the end of the day.  Some stay positive, some descend into despair, some get angry.  And, usually, if you knew the person well beforehand you can pretty much predict which path they’ll take.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t change over time.  We learn and we grow (hopefully) as time goes on, but there’s still something that stays the same at the core.

I don’t have this one worked out at all.  But I was reminded of it again yesterday when I finished the third book in a series I’ve been reading.  I’d heard a kind of universal criticism of the book, so probably went into it looking for an issue.

Most of the comments I’ve heard had an issue with how the book ended.  But for me something was off from page one.  And I think it was because the main characters in the book weren’t who they had been in the prior two books.  (I love trying to talk in generalities about a specific situation.  It sounds so wonderfully awkward.)

Yes, the characters had been through hell by this point and you’d expect them to change or have dark moments.  But the extent to which these characters had changed was too much for me.  A character who was loving and caring in the prior book was suddenly the type of person to want to kill everyone, including children, without any moments of hesitation or remorse.

It didn’t ring true.  And it made me unhappy with the whole book.  It was still a quick read and engaging story, but I really didn’t like the characters anymore.  They weren’t who they had been.

This reminds me of another series I was reading.  In this case, the authors changed between books.  The second author kept the physical quirks of the characters but changed who they were in some subtle way that made it feel “off” to me.  A character who had been a little crotchety in the prior books was suddenly obnoxious and not very likable.  She went through the same physical actions as before, but she wasn’t the same person.

It didn’t help with either of these books that I’d just read the prior book in the series.  Sometimes, when books come out a year or more apart, it lets you forget enough about the prior book to not notice these disconnects.  But when you’re dealing with a series, you never know when people are going to read that second or third book, so the transition between books needs to work as well.

And it has to be more than keeping eye color, favorite beverage, and physical quirks the same.  The “nature” of the character needs to be consistent.

I don’t know.  I suspect this is something I’ll struggle with for as long as I’m a writer.  And I doubt I’ll ever answer it to my satisfaction.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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One Response to What makes a person who they are?

  1. Keri Peardon says:

    You have to know your character as a real person–know them as well as if they were a friend or family member–before you can know what they will do in any given situation. What you describe–a character acting out of character–is because the author doesn’t really know their character and they’re changing him/her to fit the plot rather than letting him/her react naturally to the plot.

    Something I’ve always recommended (for a variety of reasons) is to write stories that don’t end up in your books–the stories of everyday life for your character(s). What movies do they go see? What do they do on a normal, boring sort of day? How is their room decorated? Do they have pets? What music do they like? I think if you work out who your characters are “off screen,” you won’t have trouble when they’re “on screen.”

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