The Importance of a Character’s Origin

a person far away

Where a character comes from may determine their values.

It is not always necessary to explain where a character comes from. Knowing their origin may not help the audience to understand a character.

But for some stories, origins can be vital.

As an example, take a contrast story like In The Heat Of The Night. Police Chief Bill Gillespie lives in the USA’s deep south and is a racist bigot. Such are his values, and for the purpose of this story also his internal problem. That he is a racist does not surprise the audience at all. It is completely credible given his origins. He comes from an area where, at the time at least, such bigotry was rife, and when the African American detective Virgil Tibbs turns up, their conflict is utterly plausible.

What we’re getting at here is that the values of a character have to be made plausible to the audience, which may be achieved by making the origins of that character explicit. In many stories, where a character comes from has to be fitting to what that character is like. Their origin produces the character’s values.

Setting, Origin, and Story World

Are we talking about setting? Well, only to an extent. Certainly the setting to some degree determines the behaviour of the characters – or rather, the character’s behaviour should not be incredible given the setting. But it is not just about where the action of the story takes place specifically – the author considers the origin of each character, which might in some cases be somewhere else. The story In The Heat Of The Night is set in the area where Police Chief Bill Gillespie comes from, while Virgil Tibbs comes from a different area, one we do not see in the story.

“Where” a character comes from need not necessarily refer merely to geographical locations. Virgil Tibbs’ actions fit his character not just because he is from Philadelphia, but because he is an African American police detective who obviously enjoyed a good education. This is his social background.

Furthermore, “where” is relative to the story world. In the case of In The Heat Of The Night, the audience brings pre-established connotations to bear on Mississippi; nobody is surprised to find a bigot there. In a fantasy story, such as The Lord Of The Rings, such connotations have to be established first. J.R.R. Tolkien goes to great lengths to explain how and why an Elf from the woods feels, thinks and acts differently from a Dwarf in the mountains.

What comes first, origins or character?

The environment in which the character was brought up will influence or determine that character’s emotional stance or values. An author can regard this truism from two perspectives.

On the one hand, if the character is established in the author’s mind as being like this and doing that, then giving him or her suitable origins may help in making the character credible.

On the other hand, an author may know that a character has specific origins, they might be a given if the character is clear in the author’s mind. If so, these origins may cause the author to develop the plot in a certain way – because of actions the character might have carried out differently if he or she were from somewhere else.

Either way, an author is generally aware of the environment in which each major character grew up as the basis for that character’s value-set.

Sounds simple.

It is not. It demands a great deal of knowledge as well as sensitivity on the part of the author. If the story world roughly corresponds to the real world, then as soon as characters from various countries or cultures appear, the author may have to research into the values and belief systems dominant in those countries or cultures in order to get the character and his or her behaviour “right”. That is, in order to make them credible.

Backstory

Note the difference between explaining a character’s belief-system and value-set according to origin compared to backstory explanations. The information that a character has a certain origin is passed on to the audience in a particular scene, and this can be done through a variety of techniques, such as dialog or exposition. If the audience or readers are aware – or made aware, in the case of fictional worlds – of the connotations of a stated origin, then no backstory is necessary to explain why the character is as he or she is.

A backstory explanation for a character’s want or need is different in that it refers to a particular event which has influenced the character, and which is presented as the cause for that character’s behaviour in at least one specific backstory scene. While it is a legitimate technique to invent influencing events which the story will present as the cause of a character’s internal problem, the technique bears risks of over-simplification and cliché. Sometimes a simple origin will suffice.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash.


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