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?