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Personal culture




Characters are the soul of a novel. Even if the concept of your plot is surviving doomsday what makes the plot a plot is the interplay between characters. I struggle to believe there is such a thing as a story that isn’t character driven. Even if the antagonist is a monster he should be treated as a character. He wants something. Make him go after it

All very well but what goes into a good character?

For me, these guys show up in my head fully formed. But it occurred to me that I may have simply internalized the creative process and left my subconscious to it. Or even if I didn’t, and I have some kind of schizophrenic relationship to imaginary people, maybe someone else could.

There are a lot of books about characters and I haven’t read any of them so I can’t be much help when it comes to recommending one. But I do have a snippet or two of information from my college days. Both revolving around the idea of personal culture.

Personal Culture

The whole study of communication is essentially focused around the question of messages - how they are conveyed and how they are understood; e.g. how is that I, with everything that makes me unique and see the world as I do, am able to communicate anything to you - when you have a totally different view to the world.

Think about most fights, they are a failure to communicate. And one reason is because everything we have experienced creates our perspective. Yes nature is important. I take after my father in many ways and it is easy to see when I’m looking at the world through the eyes of a mathematician. But how I interpret what I see depends on my personal culture. (more on our genetic selves at the end)

Back in college I wrote a literary survey on what kinds of things go into crafting these lenses.

I found a definition of culture from James Clifford and George E. Markus, (I can’t tell you from which book because the bibliography file has become corrupt) “Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complicated whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

From that you can guess the world we carry with us is just as rich and complex as the external one. I added that race or ethnicity can change a person in the sense that encountering prejudice has a lasting effect. In that vein mental stability and experiences with psychiatric episodes, as well as deepening the understanding of humanity, also comes with stigma.

How important is this? “We construct our own reality by structuring, stabilizing and relating the stream of stimuli around us in meaningful ways.” (From some dude with the last name Galvin) It is why being a writer isn’t what you do, it is what you are.

If you understand the aspects of your characters culture, and how his history affects the way he views the world, there is little about him you can’t figure out. And once you practice enough and experience the world enough such understanding should become automatic. That’s the theory anyway.

On a related note. I have section on how important history is to your imaginary world, but I'm going to focus on a character's history here.


It's essential you understand where your main character was born, how he grew up, what major events shaped his life. This will affect everything he does, every choice he makes and his opportunities to grow. You don't need a full detailed list, and I've found I keep discovering my characters past as I write. But you really need to know him as you would your closest lover.

Part of the history is something I did not study in college; the nature vs. nurture argument. I was young and thus had yet to fully understand just how powerful genetics are. From what I’ve seen, someone’s upbringing can make a huge difference to how that person turns out (with biology affecting it along the way). But, for some people, nature kicks in at around 30 and suddenly they turn into one of their parents even if they once hated them or even still do. It’s worth considering what about your characters is what they have learned, and what about your characters is who they are. You character can do things contrary to nurture, it is unlikely the same is true for the other - not without a fight. But woven into that is his state of mind


Certain states of mind can change our active nature. So while your character may be an outgoing charming socialite, if he's getting a divorce things may be different it is as true for people as it is for characters. But also as characters learn to cope with the stressors in their life their reactions change.

Long grueling stretches of time with nothing but conflict the entire way will take it's toll. Characters should become ragged.


All very well, but what if they don't come out fully formed? Well there was a time for me when they didn't. during my garbage phase characters came out wrong and flat and any I've kept from that time period are near unrecognizable now. I had to write, and write shitty drafts, until I finally got a handle on who the people were.

And now that they appear in my head, I still need to get to know them. I don't sit down and figure out an entire character before laying a first word. Instead I discover the character and world as I go along and adjust accordingly. But this it's possible I've internalized the process.

If you only have a few ideas about who is in your book, don't get bogged down, start writing anyway, just don't get glued to aspects either. Some material will never make it into the book. Just keep your fingers going and your mind open. You too will soon have people living inside your head. Just don't be too surprised when they talk back. Characters can be very opinionated about what they want to do. It's better for the story to listen to them. I know it sounds strange, but that is writing for you.

If writing is a kind of madness, the only cure is to create. I'm okay with that.

Last updated May 8th, 2017

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