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Lessons in character development: parental influences

Our parents give us our first view of the world. We incorporate their lessons into our lives and, sometimes, we spend the rest of our lives trying to unlearn these beliefs and developing our own worldview.

The other day, I was wondering what the characters in my work-in-progress have learned from their parents about love.

Growing up, I learned some very specific things about love: 

I learned that love is conditional—you have to be a “good girl” to deserve to be loved; that love can be purchased by giving people gifts; that money equals love; that you stay with your spouse no matter what—even if they are killing your spirit; and that love has no room for anything less then “perfection.”

WHOA. What a bunch of baggage to grow up with!

The list above is both horrible and perfect. Perfect in that it gave me the opportunity to grow and learn the “truth” about love. Perfect in that it can help me craft believable characters—characters who aren’t perfect and who, perhaps, have some pretty screwed up ideas about love.

So—what did your characters grow up believing?  Below are a few questions you might ask them to learn what motivates them:

* What did they learn from their parents or grandparents or other family members about love?

* Did they learn any conflicting messages about love?

*Are they aware of how their upbringing influences them today? If not, can they gain awareness as part of their character arc?

*Have they changed any of their beliefs about love?

*What other beliefs about love have they developed on their own, as an adult, say?

*What beliefs about love are they passing on to others in their life?

Another great exercise is to make a list of your main characters and then ask each character, “What did you learn from watching your parents?”

Here are a few answers to the above question from my work-in-progress:

C.B.: Love isn’t forever. Love can leave you in a heartbeat. She has her barriers up because she’s afraid to be “left” again.

N.W.: Love is all about respect and trust and taking care of one another. His barriers are down but he tries too hard to gain love and show love.

K.W.: Love isn’t real. Love is an illusion. There is no such thing as unconditional love. He’s angry and stuck (literally) in another world. He’s frustrated and will do anything to be set free. This makes him dangerous.

J.D.: Love is sad, angry, vengeful. Love makes you crazy. He’ll do anything, even kill, for the love of his mother.

Can you see how each character might then treat others based on their beliefs around love?

What beliefs do your characters have?

Of course, you can do this exercise for any value or theme that you want to explore in your story. The trick is to really see the world from your character’s eyes.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. That is something that has always been hard for me to do, but you make it sound easy. Maybe, I just needed to approach it differently. Thanks!

    December 11, 2013
  2. I love this idea to approach getting to know your characters better. Thanks for the suggestion!

    December 11, 2013

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