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When Nothing Is Normal

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Jan. 9, 2021

Usually when building a character, we go for their general personality in terms of traits, the routine/general behavior they would display, the routine/general things that would interest them and so on.

If you are writing a slice of life story, or a sitcom style series, or anything that takes place in relatively typical circumstances when it comes to social and historical times (that includes your fantasy world's typical status quo), then that's the palette you will mostly need.

But what if your story takes place in times that are not normal? Times where there are extreme circumstances, aggravating situations that go beyond the average expected hurdles in routine or daily life (*cough2020cough*), situations that force your characters to not act normal?

For example, the average person is not a killer. But if drafted in a war and moved to the front, he/she will kill daily. The average person is not constantly exposed to death and disease. Except when there is a pandemic going on. And so on.

In truth, if anything lasts long enough, it becomes (some kind of) normal. People will revert to their ‘baseline’: the behavioral patterns that generally most correspond to their personality.

HOWEVER… those behavioral patterns will be slightly tweaked, because they will also correspond to experiences that are not normal, but extreme: for example, a normally trusting or open hearted character might be immediately suspicious of strangers, while remaining trusting and open hearted with his/her friends.

Another element lies in the duration of the extreme situation. No matter how much humans seem to cope with a harsh set of conditions that are not usually part of the human experience, if it carries on long enough it will impact them significantly, which will in turn alter how their personality manifests.

People might become progressively depressed in small but significant increments. Or they may slowly lose part of their emotionality. Or they may become progressively irritable or intolerant, or fearful and skittish, or erratic in certain environments.

In some, it doesn't even happen in small progressions, but all of a sudden, in one explosive manifestation.

In yet some others, it might not show until things do, actually, return to normal, and their behavior which had adapted to suit the extreme situation is no longer adaptive.

By now you may be thinking of PTSD and definitely that is a big element of what impact you should always factor in your characters if they are in extreme situations or forced to deal with extraordinarily traumatic things.

But what I am describing can happen without full blown, diagnosable PTSD. Behavior is something that is informed by our environment in very significant manners.

Bottom line: if your story takes place in extreme situations, your characters are bound to have some extreme behavior, too. What that will be depends on what their initial baseline was, and who they still are in small respites from the trauma.

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usedbooks at 10:07AM, Jan. 9, 2021

My entire comic Used Books is set post-trauma for the main characters. What they used to be before the new normal is something of a mystery. They bounced back but landed in a different place.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 7:58AM, Jan. 9, 2021

Well, the topic certainely makes my beloved nr 1 protagonist Molly Lusc come to my mind. To be fair, not much of her past have been unveiled yet, but it has been stated in the comic so far that she do indeed come from an extreme childhood, growing up as a homeless urchin on the streets of her hometown Port Hommerond. As much as she is able to carry out a normal, stable everyday life as an adult, she still carries with her this long adapted instinct to snoop around, commit illegal acts and not being too bothered about being in a place of squalor and/or potential danger. That's because for a very long time in her childhood there were no parents to moderate her behaviour, no luxuries that we take for granted, not even sufficient shelter. This is why she ultimately failed to settle down, and to be faithful, in her marriage. She can't settle down. Her old instinct from her extreme past run too deep and simply will not go away. So what happens with her marriage? Well, I'm working on that;)

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