Friday, November 12, 2010

Nature vs. Nurture – which is it and should you even care?

The debate of Nature vs. Nurture has been tossed about for years. It all boils down to the obvious conundrum: are we born this way or do our experiences mold us? Does it have to be one or the other? Could it be a combination of the two? As a writer, why should you care?

I’m no scientist or psychologist. I can’t prove or disprove either side of the argument. But as to why a writer should care is easy. By using nature AND nurture, layers of personality add depth to our characters to either endear or alienate them with our readers. A strong heroine triumphing over adversity triggers loyalty and affection. A character turned bad due to a history of abuse launches emotions ranging from heartfelt sympathy to an exploding sense of injustice and thirst for retribution. But writer beware. How you mold your character’s traits had best be plausible or you’ll catapult your readers right out of the story.

I’m a people watcher. I’ve studied them in an attempt to nail down believable reactions to outer influences. But have you ever noticed how reality often laughs at what “should” be? There are no constants when it comes to humans. Not every woman victimized by years of abuse turns out weak and unable to cope. Case in point: Oprah Winfrey. No one can deny the obstacles she’s overcome in becoming one of the most successful women of today. What made her different? Was it some special strand in her DNA enabling her to succeed? Or was it one particular life-changing event or person that led her through the darkness? Or was it a combination? We’ve read what she thinks. What do you think?

On the other side of the spectrum, we’ve all heard stories of the well-blessed child growing up to be a serial killer. What happened there? Close to my hometown, several years ago, we had just such a shocking incident. The seemingly well-adjusted son of a successful lawyer showed up at school, whipped out a gun and opened fire on his classmates. Everyone was astounded. Did he do it because he'd always been a loner and never quite fit in at school? Some blamed video games. I shudder to think that’s what caused the unexplainable violence. At the time the massacre occurred, video games couldn’t hold a candle to the games our children play now. The boy had everything he ever wanted, was well-loved and taken care of by his family. So, what went wrong? Nature?

I don’t know that there’s a correct answer to the question. What do you think? Have you ever read a book where the writer shaped the character by circumstances that were impossible to believe? How would you have told the story?


  1. I think it's a combination of both. Nothing is ever binary. There is always a gray area. Interesting post!

  2. I agree, Ciara. I think both factors are equally important. We humans are such odd complicated creatures. Maybe that's what gives birth to all our stories.

  3. Just got to your blog Maeve. And it hit my in the heart. I never ever tell people this because I am afraid I carry a stigma because I am related to a man in prison. My brother committed a crime so bizarre to me I will never, never, understand it. He shot his wife five times and killed her.
    Now let me tell you about my brother. For 26 years he has worked in law enforcement as a high ranking Immigration Officer. He is one of six of us and we all went to church every Sunday. Catholic school until high school. My father was a in Immigration, a diplomat, in the secret service, etc. My elder brother just retired from law enforcement. All my cousins are in it. The whole dang family. My father was a hard taskmaster, cruel at times, but never with his baby boy. Once my brother tried to commit suicide because he couldn't shoot a gun well. He says he just wanted out of Border Patrol. Hmmmm. So does my father get him help, no, he gets it all hidden and puts my brother in Immigration. Now why do you wonder did my brother screw up. Spoiled, babied, everything handed to him perhaps? Or maybe he just got all the wrong genes. One can never know. But, I do believe this, there is a happy medium between spoiling and abusing. I wish I had been spoiled but would I be like my brother or would I be strong a fighter, sensitive, like I am now if I had been. I think it's a lot to do with the right kind of love. Never have a son just to carry on the name. My brother will never have children. Not ever. So what makes a good person is maybe a bit of adversity and somewhere some love, and guidance from someone who cares. Oprah may have a bit of it right after all...

  4. Dearest Mary - your comment wrenched my heart. What a terrible toll that entire ordeal must've taken on you and your family. I'm so sorry. No one will probably ever know everything that contributed to your brother's actions. But one thing I know for sure, I count you as a treasured friend and I wouldn't change you for anything in the world. I admire you and think you're a wonderful person - either because of or in spite of everything in your world. Take care, my friend.

  5. Thought provoking for sure, Maeve. Genetics or circumstance? We'll probably never really know, at least not in our lifetime. But both do have a way of shaping us into who we are and as writers, unlike in life, at least we get to mold the people into the reaction we want them to least sometimes.

  6. Well said, Deanna! Sometimes our characters can become a bit stubborn and develop traits we hadn't quite "plotted". Thanks for stopping by. :-)

  7. I believe personality can play a factor, but also everything we do, witness and experience shapes the person we are and how we react to different situations presented to us. Anyone who is a parent knows each of their children is different in personality and the way they react to things, yet they have the same parents and are being raised the same way.

    For a serial killer to be made, some experts believe just the right combination of events are introduced and depending on the personality the individual has these combinations trigger the killer instincts to take over. Perhaps something tragic happens in his or her life to set them teetering on the path of no return and then another event pushes them over the edge. It's the combination of events, a social event, or series of events, during the person's life, the fracturing of the personality to create the serial killer. If this is true, anyone of us could be a serial killer if the right combination to break us was put forth.

    I've also heard that biologists believe it can be biological, that there are some born to be serial killers and that their violent behavior is a result of abnormal brain activity, but this is yet to be proven.

    Being an author of paranormal tales, I always wondered if some of the stories about vampires and werewolves might be tales of serial killers in ancient times. Just a thought.

  8. What an intriguing idea, Karen. I never thought about the legends of werewolves and vampires in that light but you could be on to something. Thank you for adding that insight here. :-)