Moving has me considering character—not character as in whether you would give me a good reference, but character as in the traits that form the people who populate my stories.
My family and I live in a new house in a new town. You would think this is a chance to completely reinvent ourselves. In theory, we should be able to act however we want and to be whoever we want. In practice, it’s not that simple. Even when you move, your history and character move with you.
For example, I could try to make strangers believe I’m fearless. But I’m still going to insist my husband perform roach-killer duty should I run across a live version of one of the loathsome things. (Odds are good I am going to call on him even if I run across a dead version.)
On a more fundamental level, I am a compulsive rule follower. I feel like a wild rebel just ignoring the travel lanes in an empty parking lot. When the stores all had directional signs on aisles for COVID, I was the family member that refused to allow us to go up the down aisle, even if the item we needed was two steps away in the wrong direction. While it’s physically possible for me to ignore rules now that I am in a new town, mentally, it’s not. Nor can I change the parts of my personality that I unconsciously broadcast to the community at large. I exude an aura that leads people to consider me both safe and knowledgeable; in a crowded store or park, I’m the person people stop for directions. It happened yesterday, as a matter of fact. I was walking down the aisle in the Leeds Walmart when a woman asked me where something was located. I regretfully told her that it was my first time in the store and I couldn’t help. Had I then found the thing she was looking for, I would have been compelled to find her to tell her. In a new place free of expectations, I should have been free to go on with my day, but I wasn’t. My character constrained my actions.
The same is true with the characters we writers create. Readers may think we authors control our characters, but we know better. Our characters come with their own history and back story and traits. If we need them to do something that doesn’t line up with those, they resist us. Some argue vociferously against whatever we are trying to force them to do; some take a more passive-aggressive approach, giving us a vague feeling that something in the story is “not working,” and leaving it for us to discover what that is.
We can’t force our characters to be someone they’re not, but what we can do is change the environment they’re in or the challenges they face. So, while we don’t control their character, we can change their environment. Their reactions and responses to those challenges lead them to grow and change so that we (and our readers if we’re lucky) learn a little more about human nature in the process.
What characters in your writing have you found to be unmanageable?