One time in class we talked about how, even if you’re in the same small country, the way people act can differ in so many ways depending on where they live. Let me give you an example: When I was a teen, I lived in the countryside. Whenever I was out for a walk and passed a random stranger, we said hi. It even sometimes happened that we began a conversation. There was nothing weird about that. Then at one point, I moved to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark to study and found that if you smile at a stranger around here, well, nine out of ten times they will walk in a wide circle to get around you in order to avoid any kind of contact. Because in Copenhagen, talking to strangers is weird, unless you’re a drunk or a madman. Of course, there are exceptions, but the point is, city people and country people don’t act completely alike even if they are all part of the Danish culture.
The concept of culture has got a billion different definitions, so I’m not going to get into that. Instead, I would like to make the argument that the place you grew up in and the places you’ve lived define who you are, and that this is something you should take into consideration when you create characters for a fictional story. Roughly, there are three sides to this: The physical aspect, the social aspect, and the psychological aspect.
Your physical surroundings shape your abilities.
Does it define you that there is a tree in your backyard? In a way, yes. If you have a tree in your backyard, you are more likely to know how to climb it, or how to trim it. If it’s an apple tree, you might know about apple sorts. If a squirrel lives in it, you will know about squirrels. If there is a beehive, you’ll be familiar with bees. If the tree is part of a plantation, you’ll know how to garden. If it’s instead part of a farm, you’ve learned how to handle animals. See where I’m going with this?
Your physical surroundings will have had an effect on your wisdom, i.e. what you are able to do and what sort of knowledge you’ve got. This is important because your character’s abilities need to be realistic. Why would they know how to ride a horse if they’ve lived their entire life in a futuristic city? Granted, perhaps they took classes at a riding school somewhere, but then you will need to make this clear to a reader, because from what I know of city people, it’s more likely they’ve never sat on horse before, and just like everything else, riding is not easy for a beginner. Of course, not all country people know how to ride either in our present day society, but if you’re writing a medieval fantasy story, odds are ninety percent of them do.
Considering your character’s abilities can be especially fun if they e.g. meet another character who grew up in completely different physical surroundings with a following different skill set, or if you let your character travel and they come to a place where they suddenly find themselves at a loss. For instance, my Dungeons&Dragons (a pen&paper roleplaying game) group once had to travel by sea instead of through forests, like they usually do. Our two pirates were in their right element, literally, while our elf spent the entire trip in a terrified and seasick state because she had never before been on a ship and therefore had no useful abilities for this situation. It made for an interesting contrast.
Your social surroundings shape your people attitude.
Remember my example with talking to strangers? Because I was used to a society in which people are very open toward strangers, that is the attitude I have developed. Even if I have now learned not to randomly smile at people in Copenhagen, because you usually adapt to your surroundings, my immediate reaction when someone talks to me is still to smile and reply. In other words, the way I handle people is influenced by the social surroundings in which I grew up.
Let me give you another example of this. Even though I don’t find it weird to engage in conversations with strangers, I don’t go looking for it as such, and it would never occur to me to knock on the doors of my neighbors just to chat. My next-door neighbor, on the other hand, is from Tunisia, and from him I have learned that in his native country it is not unusual for neighbors to act somewhat like an extended family. To him, the quiet agreement between people living in the same apartment complex about not speaking to one another except for the occasional “Hallo” is as weird as not smiling at people in the big city is to me. I know this now, but the first couple times he approached me, I had no idea what to do. I thought I was open and friendly to strangers, but this was beyond me.
The difference in our attitudes toward people is shaped from our social surroundings. If a character, like my neighbor, has grown up in a place where everyone readily engages in lively conversations whether they are family, friends, or strangers, this is likely what they will do as well. If, on the other hand, they come from a place where people treat each other with hostility and suspicion, they might be less than eager to approach a person with whom they have no former relation. This also applies to the amount of personal information they might be willing to share with the people around them.
Your psychological surroundings shape your self-opinion.
Okay, granted: When I talk about “psychological surroundings”, I’m bending the general idea of “place” and “home” a bit. Nevertheless, I will argue that there is an important psychological aspect to the way a home shapes a person, because besides the physical place and the social atmosphere, the way you are treated during your childhood and youth will inevitably affect how you feel about yourself, as well as how you believe other people perceive you.
To be honest with you, I thought I would readily have another great example from my life to share with you here. But the thing is, psychologically, people are very complex, and it was extremely difficult for me to think of an example that could encompass everything I wanted to say about this part of the surroundings. Psychology is a vast and complicated field, and there are a huge amount of books written on the subject of how your childhood and youth have affected you as a person. To give just one example, sibling psychology tells us your psyche is different depending on whether you are a first born, middle child, youngest child, or only child. This illustrates the complexity: Even children from the same family with the exact same set of parents can be vastly different.
But even if there are hundreds of variables that shape your (and your characters’) psychological aspect, I will argue that at least your self-opinion and amount of self-confidence can be related to what I term the psychological surroundings and depends on the way you have been treated by your close family. For instance, people (and characters) with parents etc. who have always listened to them and respected their opinions will be more likely to have confidence in their own line of thought, whereas people who have constantly been reprimanded and cut off when speaking are more likely to believe that what they have to say is unimportant.
As an example from the world of fiction, consider the difference between Harry and Dudley in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: When we first meet Harry, he is not a very confident boy. Throughout his entire life, the Dursleys have made it clear that he is worthless, strange, and beneath them. So when Hagrid shows up and tells him that he is special, his first reaction is that the man must be mistaken. He grows confident only when he begins to have people who support him in being who he wants to be. Dudley, on the other hand, has always been assured by Vernon and Petunia that he is great and important. He never doubts that he deserves 30+ birthday presents every year, and although most people would say that Dudley is a spoiled brat, I would argue that a lot of his personality simply reflects his parents’ attitude towards him.
If you want to learn more about how the psychological surroundings can shape your characters, I can recommend books or courses on psychology. I took a psychology class while in high school, and although the readings were heavy at times, it was very inspiring and insightful. Alternately, a lot of literary analyses that centers on characters take the psychological aspect into account and can teach you a lot as well.
Of course not everything in one’s personality comes from one’s surroundings, and the degree to which they affect a person varies depending on which theory you get the numbers from. But as I have argued in this blog post, surroundings do play a part, at least, in shaping a person and, consequently, a character, which is why I believe the physical, social, and psychological surroundings are always worth taking into consideration when you map out the details of how your character came to be and what skills they have to work with when your story begins. If they know something or are used to act in a specific way, they must have picked it up somewhere, and their home would be a very relevant place for you to lay the foundation for their abilities. So keep this in mind when you create their society and their background.
If you need inspiration for shaping a character’s background, there are two things I would suggest that you try. One is to look at your favorite fictional characters. How did the authors justify their skills? Where and how did they grow up? If they have any skills that don’t necessarily fit their upbringing, how did they learn those? Another suggestion is to consider yourself and your friends. How are you different and why? What comes naturally to you and what do you find strange about each other’s behavior? Can this be related to where you grew up? It may sound like a deep, psychological research kind of thing, but it could also be a great topic for an interesting conversation.
People change, of course. Nothing is set in stone, and as the surroundings change, so does the person/character. Sometimes, it can be subtle changes in their current home and area that affect them. At other times, it may be a physical move or journey to a whole new place. Whatever the cause, they can gain new abilities, learn new social skills, and even change their opinion of themselves. This change and/or self-discovery often makes for an important part of a story. After all, isn’t character development one of the most interesting things to write and read about?