May 6 – 12: “Which determines character behavior the most – cultural background, education or wealth?”     

This week we dig into character and try to answer the question: “Which determines character behavior the most – cultural background, education or wealth?” Join ITW members David Morrell, Taylor Stevens, L. A. Starks, Cat Connor, Axel Avian, Paul D’Ambrosio, Deborah Coonts, Gary Williams and Wilf Nussey for this can’t-miss discussion!


David Morrell created Rambo in his novel, First Blood. His bestsellers include the classic spy novel The Brotherhood of the Rose, the basis for the only mini-series to premier after a Super Bowl. An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell has received three Bram Stoker awards and ITW’s Thriller Master award. His latest novel is a Victorian thriller, Murder as a Fine Art.

Taylor Stevens is the New York Times bestselling author of The Informationist and The Innocent. Both featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, they received critical acclaim and have been published in seventeen languages. Raised in communes across the globe and denied an education beyond the sixth grade, Stevens broke free of the Children of God and now lives in Texas. Her third book in the Munroe series, The Doll, will be published by Crown in June 2013.

L. A. Starks was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Oklahoma, and lives in Texas. She earned an engineering bachelor’s from Tulane and an MBA from the University of Chicago. Working for energy companies prepared her to write thrillers. Strike Price, published by L&L Dreamspell, is her second. Her first, 13 Days: The Pythagoras Conspiracy, received five-star reviews. Starks consults on energy economics, is on the Dallas Public Library volunteer board, and has run seven half-marathons.

Cat Connor lives in the Wellington Region of New Zealand. Drinks too much espresso and spends her days writing thrillers (the _byte series) accompanied by her greyhound, Romeo. She loves wine, hanging out with friends, and believes music and laughter are essential. Also, Cat knows where you hid the body.

Paul D’Ambrosio spent a good part of his youth traveling the world, working in Washington and then settling down in New Jersey to start a career in investigative journalism. He was one of two finalists for the 2010 Pulitzer in Public Service, and has won numerous national awards for his work in uncovering corruption, political high-jinx and government waste. When he is not writing novels about Sister Maris and various plots to undermine the government, he works as the director of news and investigations at a large daily newspaper.

Gary Williams lives in St. Augustine, Florida. He attended Florida State University and has a bachelor’s degree in Business Marketing from University of North Florida. Once a corporate manager, he now writes full time with co-writer, Vicky Knerly. Their fourth e-novel, Indisputable Proof, released in the fall of 2012 was listed as one of the “Best Fiction Books of 2012” by Rosa St. Claire of the Miami Examiner. Manipulation will be available on May 16th.

Axel Avian grew up in an organization not unlike F.A.L.C.O.N in a town not unlike Springfield, Missouri. He has traveled the world for his work. To relax, he enjoys sky and scuba diving, hang gliding, rock climbing, and snowboarding. He reads whenever he can and routinely trounces opponents on video games.

Deborah Coonts‘s mother tells her she was born in Texas a very long time ago, though she’s not totally sure—her mother can’t be trusted. But she was definitely raised in Texas on barbecue, Mexican food, and beer. She currently resides in Las Vegas, where family and friends tell her she can’t get into too much trouble. Silly people. Coonts has built her own business, practiced law, flown airplanes, written a humor column for a national magazine, and survived a teenager.

Wilf Nussey retired after 40 years in newspapers, mostly as a foreign correspondent and editor in Africa during its metamorphosis from colonialism to independence. He has since written seven books, four of them documentaries and two e-novels, the latest being The Hidden Third, a saga of rebellion in the new South Africa.

  1. This may sound a bit crazy, but I find that a character’s behavior is greatly influenced by the other characters in the book.
    I start with a basic framework for a character in my head – say a 50-something retired special ops soldier in self-exile, working as a mercenary in the Middle East because he has lost everything in the States that mattered to him – and throw him into the plot. In a battle scene, I assume his foil would be a Russian merc, but that’s too predictable. The Russian then becomes a woman, scarred in battle but still deadly in combat. Now I have a quandary for the American – he is perplexed, restrained even, by his sense of chivalry when he faces a female antagonist. As those two interact, and other characters come into play, friction is created that teases the nuances from all the figures.
    I think if I scripted everything out ahead of time for each character, I would paint myself into a corner. But through the organic interaction, the character behavior gives the readers a multidimensional profile of the personalities.
    And the crazy part is sometimes I can’t control who pops into the book, or what they do. The Russia woman was supposed to be a walk-on. In, out, done. But she ended up staying and changing the course of events in “Easy Squeezy.”

  2. Of the three choices, I’d say cultural background. People can achieve wealth and schooling, but their roots are not a choice. A person’s cultural upbringing is his/her foundation. Education and wealth are not always obvious. We’ve all known people who are highly educated, yet lack common sense. Or those who are financially set, yet are frugal with every penny they spend. While a character might try to hide his/her upbringing, at their core, it shapes their morals, values and beliefs. This trait cannot be masked. It will eventually rise to the surface.

    I would propose a fourth option in determining character behavior. Interesting characters are driven by their past, the pitfalls they’ve endured—whether self-inflicted or a victim of circumstance—or the achievements they’ve earned. I would suggest, above all else, this establishes the character’s behavior.

  3. Posted on behalf of author Wilf Nussey:

    “The prime determinant of character is cultural background – the ethnic and social environment in which a person is raised with its specific rules, morals and principles. The extent to which these shape character are determined by parents and peers. Education is the next most important factor, again within the bounds of ethnic and social environment. Wealth – or poverty – are important influences but at a much lower level and their impact can be overridden, or overcome, by the strength of individual personality.”

    Wilf Nussey, author of “The Hidden Third”.

  4. Which determines character behavior the most, culture, education or wealth?

    Interesting question, I’ve been thinking about this all weekend (on and off, let’s not get carried away). For Ellie – the main character in my Byte Series, behavior is determined most by her upbringing. Maybe.
    Looking at Ellie Conway for a minute – she’s well-educated, she’s comfortably situated financially, and she was raised in a complicated (messy) family.
    Over all, the thing that has the most impact of her behavior is the way she was raised – by an often-absent father (Navy) and a mentally-ill mother. The biggest impact was her mother’s illness, which led Ellie to be an overachiever. She was driven by the need to escape and at the same time help others. That course set her on a path to become an FBI agent and eventually created The Butterfly Foundation: for the children of mentally ill parents.
    So culture, how she was raised determines how she conducts herself in the world.

    Cat Connor
    killerbyte, terrorbyte, exacerbyte, flashbyte, soundbyte …

  5. In my Lucky series, Vegas is not only the setting but also is so important that the city becomes a character, if you will. And, having lived in Vegas for the better part of twelve years, I can tell you that the sensibilities here are very different than, say, Dallas, where I spent my formative years.

    Since my human characters are Vegas-dwellers, the city in all of its uniqueness, exerts quite an influence. And it has been my experience, that most of the real Vegasites are square pegs who didn’t fit in the round holes in the rest of the country–yes, me included. The city itself allows each of us to be the silly people we were meant to be–or it makes me more comfortable to think so:)

    Lucky, my protagonist, was raised in a whorehouse in Pahrump–the closest town to Vegas where prostitution is legal. I am here to tell you that THAT experience influences her behavior.

    Money, not so much. Education, not as much either, by my way of thinking. Lucky has plenty of both, but it’s her upbringing and Vegas home that makes her who she is and that influences her the most.

  6. As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational, logical beings, so much of what we do—the choices we make, the actions we take, the way we respond to the subtitles around us, come from subconscious reactions—things we feel—often without ever knowing why we feel them.

    Much of this is imprinted by experiences from a very young age, and those experiences are typically born of the culture that surrounds us. Our ideas about wealth and education—about what is possible and what is not—what is expected of us to achieve and what is not—comes from our culture. Culture, like the layers of an onion, starts in the home and expands out to the neighborhood, to the town, to the state, to the country, and the thoughts and habits that we absorb from the expectations within these expanding influences are far more difficult to shed and relearn than losing a fortune or making one, than gaining an education vs. never having had one.

    Culture is another way of understanding our past. When you understand where a person has come from, you understand in context where she is today. And so it is with characters in fiction—without understanding their culture—whether it is the culture of home or of town or country—their actions in the present cannot make sense unless, perchance, their culture also happens to align with the reader’s culture.

  7. Wow, this discussion got off to a great start before I could jump in. Thinking of the impending release of the new GREAT GATSBY film, I’d like to start with cultural background as one of the elements proposed here. Gatsby’s motivation is that he fell in love with Daisy, a woman above his class. A cheap gangster, he did everything to try to elevate himself to her level, but the shabbiness shows through his glamor. He over-pronounces words and doesn’t have the casualness that people born to “society” have about their status. His failure is almost heart-breaking. Social position, education, wealth–these elements illustrate the key to making a reader sympathize with a character. If a character wants something strongly enough (it doesn’t matter if it’s big or small), readers will want to know if the character achieves that goal or not.

  8. Let’s start by reducing the alternatives: it ain’t wealth. Authors can write sensitive, considerate rich people or sensitive, considerate poor people. But unadorned, the “nobility of the poor” and the “evil of the rich” are stale clichés. And to the extent we write from experience, numerous examples suggest a person’s life approach is often unrelated to his or her wealth.

    The well-educated antagonist, one who never embraced morality or more likely found it useless, can be integral to developing a worthy, tricky adversary. And heroes need both brawn and brains to outwit their adversaries. So, education is an interesting trait, but not wholly determinative.

    This leaves culture, in which I include family relationships and which subsumes education and wealth. While there is merit—and relief–in an uncomplicated assassin like Gernot Insel in STRIKE PRICE, storytelling really shines when authors construct their characters from differing familial and ethnic backgrounds.

    The characters in my books operate in an environment of complex technology and global intrigue—the energy business—but are shaped most by their families and cultures. A simple example is one of the villains’ slangy summations of a Houston character in 13 DAYS: THE PYTHAGORAS CONSPIRACY: “that mixed-blood, know-it-all Preston Li, probably some scholarship Bellaire Boulevard success story.”

    The conflict of cultures also serves as a good crucible. Getting into the head of a graduate of France’s École Polytechnique (or ‘X’), for example, led me in richer directions for my primary antagonist in 13 DAYS. Indeed, it later led me to a real-life graduate of X who was even more interesting, though not a touch villainous.

    Cultures and subcultures abound—ethnic, linguistic, family, athletic, geographic, occupational, and business. What enormous potential for that greatest of story drivers: conflict.

  9. This is a really interesting question. I think the answer should entirely depend on the circumstances, where each of these could be an asset or an obstacle in the character’s struggle.

    As assets they would not necessarily play a part at all; the cash flushed, highly educated and well-traveled character needn’t worry about the influence of these, and therefore I don’t think they would determine his or her behavior. Bruce Wayne’s behavior, for instance, is less determined by these influences than by the death of his parents and, more immediately, the challenge presented by whichever baddie he’s up against.

    Conversely when cultural background, education and wealth are obstacles they will become huge influences on behavior. I imagine character who is a refugee fleeing a warzone where women are denied education now finds herself struggling to fit into a Western society, confronted by huge cultural, educational and economic challenges. With all of these challenges influencing her behavior constantly, the one challenge that determines her behavior the most at any given moment will depend on her objective; if she’s shopping for groceries I imagine her wealth will dictate what she chooses to buy more than her cultural background, which might otherwise have done so if money were no object. When she’s applying for a job, both wealth and education are clearly on her mind, although in this instance wealth is more a motivating factor whilst her education will directly determine the choices she makes and her behavior.

    This is what I believe should happen. However, what I think happens all too often is that the character’s behavior is determined by the author’s cultural background, education or wealth. Whatever obstacle the author is facing will often determine the outlook and the decisions made by the character. This is a pitfall I consciously try to avoid, although I think on some level it’s fairly inevitable that my characters will reflect parts of me – how could they not?

    1. Would Bruce Wayne have turned to vigilante justice as a masked hero had his family been blue collar? Would being from a different socioeconomic class have changed how he viewed his options and thus his choices and overall behavior? Wealth and education factor into culture background, so it’s difficult to break them up.

  10. The topic of cultural background also often depends on the country and era in which the story is set. I mentioned THE GREAT GATSBY in which a petty gangster tries to assume the mannerisms of the East Coast social set, with disastrous consequences. Edith Wharton’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is another American novel that deals with class distinctions. But for the most part American novels don’t emphasize class as much as money–the haves and have nots. Who has it? What does a character need to get it? In contrast, I’ve been researching the Victorian period for MURDER AS A FINE ART, and in each scene, I needed to make sure that I understood the strata that the character belonged to. Police officers and detectives were considered employees, for example–members of the working class. And yet they had the authority to intrude into the lives of the upper class. During the 1850s, this became a considerable source of contention.

  11. While cultural background is key, a character’s education offers a sort of story arc if we think of it more broadly as experience. Yes, we are most formed by our various cultures and affinity groups, but education (or education-seeking) evinces a kind of motivation or drive. The character is seeking a certain kind of experience, be it ancient history or the most effective body-slam.

    In thrillers, which so effectively incorporate realistic elements, readers may enjoy happening upon new knowledge, albeit presented with more drama than in a classroom.

  12. David’s comments and others about the social strata I think hits the mark on motivation. It’s not wealth per se, but the quest for wealth with which the richness of the character emerges. Having a million dollars is not as much fun as trying to get a million dollars (or so I imagine!). Jefferson said it best – it’s all about the pursuit of happiness. If you’re just “happy,” you’re boring.

  13. Ah, but the pursuit of wealth is often impacted by one’s background. How much money does a character start with? If they don’t start with any, then the chase for wealth can certainly be a huge motivation, but it’s culturally derived somewhat.

  14. The pursuit of wealth and education are also perhaps efforts to change one’s social strata and, as one moves through the social milieu, then motivations evolve. A movie that dealt with this in fine form is Sabrina–both versions. A story of a young woman, the chauffer’s daughter, who longs for the handsome, dashing youngest son of the very wealthy family for which ehr father works. When she gains acceptance into their world, she realizes she doesn’t want the younger son at all….of course, now she wants the oldest son who actually has the talent and the drive, if not the looks. As she changes and learns, her original choices evolve into deeper, more grounded ones.

  15. Deborah, very good points about education. How would you write a character if that person were raised on a commune and taught that wealth was bad – but then is thrust into the center of greed, say Wall Street, where success is determined by accumulation of money? The conflicts would be enormous. I gravitate toward characters with extreme internal conflicts. I think the sharp contrasts provide for good story and character arcs, but also nuances that helps the reader relate.

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