Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nature and Nurture: Growing Characters

by Cat Woods

Gardening is a bit like writing. We carefully plan out our landscape, filling it with colors, textures and scents. Sometimes we don't take into account every little nuance that ultimately impacts the garden's development. Sunlight, water, heat and soil. Some of these variables are within our control. Others are not.

Yet, these outside factors shape a plant more than you would expect. Take my grasses, for example.

Notice the slim, white blades with lines of green? This grass stands about twelve inches tall and has white spiky seed tufts that barely peek out over the top of the blades. I planted this grass in a full sun area on a bit of a decline on the south side of the deck. Inevitably this means hot, dry conditions.

Ironically, I planted the exact same grass in this flower bed.

The same genetic make-up placed in a shaded, damp bed gives me wide, dark green blades with thin white stripes. It stands almost twenty-four inches tall and boasts seed spires that soar another foot over the bulk of the plant. 

When we write, our characters--like my grasses--must be a product of both nature and nurture. They cannot feel like clones of each other and must have distinct traits and quirks of their own.

So how do we populate our manuscripts with fully fleshed-out characters? It's as easy as planting a garden.

  • Physical Nature. What does your character look like? Does he have black hair and green eyes? Is she slim with small hands and skin the color of skim milk? This part of character building is easy. It's the plant we pick up at the store and bring home to the garden. It is the building block for all that is to come. Physical character traits are as basic as describing the difference between a rose bush and a dandelion.
  • Physical Nurture. How does your MC wear his black hair? Long and silky or short and spiky, and why? Does she keep her nails painted and long or are they chewed down and rough—a direct contrast to the rest of her delicate appearance? As writers, we choose these variables for a reason. They can be modified as our characters change and grow throughout the story. It's akin to watering our plants. Less water can force a plant to become more hardy, while consistent water usually results in a fuller, more robust plant.
  • Psychological Nature. People are naturally predisposed to act a certain way. Some live with their glass half-empty, while others carry around one that is always half-full. As writers, we must understand the very basics of our characters' inherent psychological make-up. Is your MC timid?  Does she like hanging out in the shadows, or does she follow the light like a sunflower in an open field? These tendencies are natural and with us from birth. They cannot be changed, but they can be modified by the environment.
  • Psychological Nurture. Even a timid character can be ferocious when the time is right. What triggers your MC to break out of her normal tendencies? What words force your happy-go-lucky character to withdraw? Writers control the amount of light they shed on their characters' lives. Cloudy days impact a character's natural predisposition as much as consistently clear skies.
  • Social Nature. The community surrounding our characters is a bit like the dirt in which we plant them. They cannot change the fact that they have three vicious siblings and Crazy Aunt Betty living in the garage any more than the grass can control the acidity of the soil. Yet the social environment we create can be toxic or nutrient rich and largely shapes our characters and their behaviors.
  • Social Nurture. Boosting a character's environment is as easy as fertilizing a daisy. By providing the supportive coach or the business mentor, writers can give an otherwise socially fragile character the chance to shine. Consider the following: A typical baby of the family can, in fact, act more like a first child if certain pressures are exerted on them. What makes your MC of an alcoholic parent embrace sobriety or embrace the bottle? What stunts your character's growth? What motivates them to break the mold or to follow in Crazy Aunt Betty's footsteps?
By modifying even one or two variables, we can largely change the personality and behavior of our characters. It honestly doesn't take much to create unique traits and toss stereotypes altogether.

I live in zone 4—a cold winter climate that doesn't allow for many perennials. Most flowers I plant are annuals that must be replanted each spring. However, the winter snows this past year created the perfect insulation for my annual flowerbed. Many plants that would traditionally die off returned with spunk and vigor. I love this defiance of genetic nature. It's what I strive for in my writing.

So tell me, fellow scribes, how do you create your characters? What factors influence their growth and development? Are you conscious of the natural traits you give them and the outside influences that impact their overall personality and motivation? Do you have a reason behind the long hair and nail-bit fingers? Have you ever planted a flower character in ideal conditions and had it die anyway? Have unexpected marigolds bloomed against all odds?

Curious minds want to know.


Matt Sinclair said...

I keep several terraria worth of characters in loamy notebooks. Some I leave alone for a while, let them germinate. Others I just wish I could eat up right away. These are the ones I nurture most. They don't always survive the summer heat, but I usually learn something in the process.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love the analogy!! I try to come up with a combination of nature/nuture for my character's personalities. I like throwing them into circumstances that challenge them and force them to change the way they grow :)

catwoods said...

Matt~ like you, my literary garden has been taken over by characters in all stages of development. I nurture them as best I can so they are ready for transplanting into my manuscripts as needed!

Jemi~ Challenging characters to grow is so important. I dislike books where there is very little internal challenge and change.

As writers, I think it's easy to overlook the whys of our characters' traits. We forget that there is a purpose behind the way they wear their hair or choose their wardrobe or slink away when confrontation arises. By understanding these subtleties and using them to flesh out our characters, their potential for change is so much more.

Thanks for the comments~

Jessie Humphries said...

I dont know a dang about gardening...but the analogy was enlightening. I love this part about writing. Its like creating a new friend that you get to spend a lot time with. And if you spend enough time, you just might get a great character (or the phych ward).

Nina Powers said...

Character development has been a tough part of writing for me. The story is there, but who tells it and with what kind of voice is an issue for me. Thank you for this analogy - I think it will come in handy very very soon.


genelempp said...

Excellent tips and character guide Cate! I keep a file of all the great tips I find online and I'll be adding this to them.

Great post :)

catwoods said...


Thanks for stopping by with a comment. Like you, I fall for my characters--sadly, all out love for one of my supporting characters in my last WIP!

I think the most effective characters are those we feel strongly about. Love or hate, if we can flesh them out to elicit actual reactions and emotions from us as writers, the chances are our readers will react with equal strength and hang with our stories to find out what happens.


ps. I only pretend to know things about gardening. I simply appreciate the peace that comes when I dig in the dirt and watch flower bloom as the summer goes on.

catwoods said...


Like you, character depth is the hardest part of writing for me. It is partly why I'm exploring character devolopment and traits here and on my blog. I'm trying to learn how to be more effective in this area of writing.

Hopefully you will have luck finding your voice to tell your stories soon!

Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your journey with us.


Cat Woods said...


You're like a lucky penny for me. Thanks for following me over here. I hope you enjoy From the Write Angle. There are so many wonderful and talented writers here with fabulous perspectives.

I hope my quirky analogies really do help!


cherie said...

Excellent post, Cate! I love this. Now I'll have to approach my characters with your flower garden in mind. ;)

catwoods said...

Thanks, Cherie.

I wish I could bring you here to bask in the beautiful colors and the peacefulness as the breeze rustles through the leaves. I tend to plant more flowers than necessary (almost 300 this year), but I guess I do that with characters too. I alway seem to have more than enough to choose from when I'm ready to write!

Thanks for stopping by!