July 13 – 19: “Which determines character behavior the most – cultural background, education, or wealth?

thriller-roundtable-logo5Which determines character behavior the most, cultural background, education, or wealth? That’s the pressing question this week as ITW members Lynette Eason, Haris Orkin, Melissa Kosci, Paul D. Marks, Colin Campbell, Elizabeth Goddard, Otho Eskin, Elisabeth Rose, TG Wolff, Emily Liebert and Frank Zafiro weigh in with their thoughts. Check out this great group of authors and their latest novels below, and scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss it!


Lynette Eason writes for Revell and Harlequin. Her books have appeared on the CBA, ECPA, and Publisher’s Weekly bestseller lists. In 2016, Lynette placed in the top ten in the James Patterson co-writers contest. She has won numerous awards including the Killer Nashville’s Reader’s Choice Award, the Christian Retailing’s Best Award and more. In 2018, Lynette’s novel, Her Stolen Past was made into a Lifetime Movie Network. Lynette is a member of ACFW, RWA, MWA, ITW, FHL and KOD.


Emily Liebert is the USA Today bestselling author of seven books—Facebook Fairytales, You Knew Me When, When We FallThose Secrets We Keep, Some Women, Pretty Revenge, and Perfectly Famous. Emily is also the Books Correspondent for Moffly Media, a Connecticut magazine conglomerate. She’s been featured often in the press by outlets such as: Today ShowThe Rachael Ray Show, The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalInStyle, and Good Housekeeping.


Ex-army, retired cop, and former scenes of crime officer, Colin Campbell served with the West Yorkshire police for 30 years. He is the author of the UK crime novels Blue Knight, White Cross and Northern Ex, and the US thrillers featuring rogue Yorkshire cop Jim Grant.



Haris Orkin is an author, playwright, screenwriter, and game writer. His play Dada premiered at The La Jolla Playhouse. A Saintly Switch was produced by Disney and directed by Peter Bogdanovich. His games have been nominated for the WGA Award and the BAFTA. His debut novel, You Only Live Once, was published by Imajin Books in 2018.  The sequel, Once is Never Enough, was released in April.


Elizabeth Goddard is the bestselling author of more than 40 books, including Never Let Go, Always Look Twice, and the Carol Award–winning The Camera Never Lies. Her Mountain Cove series books have been finalists in the Daphne du Maurier Awards and the Carol Awards. Goddard is a seventh-generation Texan.


TG Wolff writes thrillers and mysteries that play within the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong. Cause and effect drive the stories, drawing from 20+ years’ experience in civil engineering, where “cause” is more often a symptom of a bigger, more challenging problem. Diverse characters mirror the complexities of real life and real people, balanced with a healthy dose of entertainment. T G Wolff holds a master’s degree in civil engineering and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.


Frank Zafiro was a police officer in Spokane, Washington, from 1993 to 2013. He retired as a captain. He is the author of numerous crime novels, including the River City novels and the Stefan Kopriva series. He lives in Redmond, Oregon, with his wife Kristi, dogs Richie and Wiley, and a very self-assured cat named Pasta. He is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist.


Melissa Kosci is a fourth-degree black belt in and certified instructor of Songahm Taekwondo. In her day job as a commercial property manager, she secretly notes personal quirks and funny situations, ready to tweak them into colorful additions for her books. She and Corey, her husband of twenty years, live in Florida, where they do their best not to melt in the sun.


Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. His short stories have won numerous awards: Windward was included in the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018 and won the Macavity Award. His story Ghosts of Bunker Hill was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Award. Brendan DuBois, NY Times best-selling author, says Paul’s latest novel The Blues Don’t Care is “finely written” and “highly recommended.”


Multi-published in romance and romantic suspense, Elisabeth Rose lives very happily in Canberra with her musician husband. Travel is a big part of their lives now that the family has left home. Elisabeth’s original training was in clarinet performance, but she was also a tai chi instructor for 25 years. An avid reader, her preference is for a happy ending regardless of genre, and she is most annoyed if a main character dies or leaves—unless, of course, it’s the villain.


A lawyer and former diplomat, Otho Eskin served in the US Army and in the United States Foreign Service in Washington and in Syria, Yugoslavia, Iceland and Berlin (then the capital of the German Democratic Republic). He was Vice-Chairman of the US delegation to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, participated in the negotiations on the International Space Station, was principal US negotiator of several international agreements on seabed mining and was the US representative to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. He speaks French, German and Serbo-Croatian. He was a frequent speaker at conferences and has testified before the US Congress and commissions. Otho Eskin has also written plays including: Act of God, Murder As A Fine ArtDuetJulie, Final Analysis, Season In Hell, among others, which have been professionally produced in Washington, New York and in Europe. Otho is married and lives in Washington, DC.


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  1. People at their core are not changed in any fundamental way by wealth, education or culture. They are born with all the essential elements of their character more or less in place. Character can be shaped by experiences – family, friends, early schooling and trauma. But I doubt this alters the fundamental personality traits. Depravation of cultural background, education or financial instability can affect personality. Character traits such as hostility, generosity, suspiciousness, compassion, anger – those we’re born with. No amount of education, wealth or attending operas will do much to change that.

    In the wonderful world of modern thriller and crime fiction- character seems unmoored to cultural background, education or wealth. The writer does not want to reveal the mystery by having their characters fit cliché’s of class or rank. In English fiction, set against a background of class and privilege, members of the upper classes were once seen as superior. In the 1920’s and 1930’s upper class gentlemen could be amateur detectives. Today such toffs are just as likely to be the villains. John Le Carre is more representative of modern fiction. His master spy, George Smiley, must face enemies from the upper classes; and he prevails. American writers tend to create characters who are above, indifferent or even hostile to class, education and culture. It reflects a deep American suspicion of the educated and cultured. Maybe this is the legacy of Raymond Chandler. James Ellroy is one of the best known writers to continue in this tradition.

    1. In English fiction, set against a background of class and privilege, members of the upper classes were once seen as superior.

      I’ve been reading a bit of Agatha Christie lately and that comment is so true of her. The Constable Plods are always ready to defer to their social betters and they always listen intently to Poirot and Miss Marple, after a bit of private grumbling about foreigners and nosy old ladies, and usually say they couldn’t have solved it without their help.

      1. Very true of Christie. I’ve always appreciated her depictions of how upper class men of her era regarded one another and others in Society. Her characters often speak to her insightful observationalism–a value that was not only a strong character trait but was also omnipresent in her works.

  2. What a fascinating question. The more I thought about it the more interesting it became and the harder to unravel the threads that create character. I eventually decided that education is the key, not just structured school learning but the lessons we learn from our parents and the society we grow up in. What we learn for ourselves develops character so I tend to agree and disagree with Otho’s comments.

    I think (barring mental aberrations) a baby is born with certain innate tendencies but as soon as that child opens its eyes it is learning and what it learns to survive in whatever circumstances it is born into, will shape which of those innate characteristics are suppressed or enhanced. eg a child born into a loving family which treats everyone kindly and fairly will probably be taught that punching someone is not the best way to solve a problem, whereas another family may resolve issues with violence. I suppose it depends on how extreme those tendencies are whether parental guidance can have much effect but left unchecked or encouraged I have no doubt that those natural tendencies can be drastically shaped. The smart child whose instinct is to punch but knows it will be punished for it will probably figure out some other way of inflicting damage … and from these beginnings can come our villains.

    I agree that wealth and culture won’t alter those basic tendencies but they will certainly help shape the way a person views life, particularly in respect to something like the position of women in society.

  3. This is a tough question with no easy answer. It’s a mixed bag, if you will. Cultural background will affect both education and wealth. The old saying comes to mind—you can take the boy out of the country but you cannot take the country out of the boy. The character Crocodile Dundee popped into my head when I searched on this phase. He left Australia to go to New York City—getting an “education” about the rest of the world, and also access to wealth, and in the end he remained true to his character. Not to say that people/characters can’t change given time and the will to change. Regarding characters that I’ve created, no matter their journeys, some part of them will always remain anchored to their beginnings and, in the end, that’s what will affect their behavior the most.

  4. If I had to choose between those three attributes, and I do, I would say cultural background. But honestly, characters are a combination of countless attributes, just like actual human beings. Which is why the best characters feel like actual human beings.

    I worked in the theater and studied acting and the most important thing an actor needs to know in order to play a scene is what is driving them. What does their character want? For me that’s the heart of every character and the engine that drives the conflict. Do they want approval? Love? Wealth? Safety? Revenge? Justice? Lunch? And what they want can be influenced by an infinite number of factors. Were they were born and raised in East L.A.? Suburban Chicago? Rural Texas? How did their parents raise them? Were they disapproving and distant? Loving and supportive? Violent and terrifying? Did your character experience trauma? Live through war? Suffer an illness or accident? So many, many things can influence and shape a character. (Personal wealth, cultural background, and education level are just three of them.) Did they ever go hungry? Were they given every opportunity? Are they spoiled? Resentful? Ignorant? Book smart, but not very street smart?

    The main character of my debut novel not only completely rejected his cultural background, but also his previous life history and personality to transform himself into another person entirely. But even that rejection is a direct reaction to who he was and who he wanted to be. In Flynn’s case, he adopted a persona based entirely on a fictional character in popular culture.

  5. This sounds a bit like that, nature or nurture debate. Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd fell foul of it in Trading Places so I’ll tread carefully here. Wait a minute; no I won’t.
    Since most characters share certain traits with their authors I guess we’d have to look at what shaped us to see what shapes our fictional characters. When I created Jim Grant I made him a cop in the West Yorkshire Police because I was a cop in the West Yorkshire Police. I never had sex in the shower and haven’t shot anybody yet but Grant’s behaviour stems from my worldview and that was coloured by my upbringing.

    So, cultural background? That’s never really come into it, although backstory does give a reason why Grant acts the way he does. A working class background is going to produce a different character than someone born with a silver spoon.

    Education? Definitely, but that is often determined by your upbringing. A happy childhood with good parents is the right of all children but disadvantaged families have fewer choices when it comes to education. They might still have love and support but with less resources.

    Wealth? That’s where the resources come in. And it’s something that I have no experience of. They say that money doesn’t mean you’re happy but being miserable and wealthy must be better than being miserable and poor. More choices again, and therefore better education. Cultural background might well determine your chances of becoming wealthy, unless you’re a self-made man, so we’ve come full circle.

    Which determines character behaviour the most? Your guess is as good as mine. For me, it depends on what your story needs from the character. If you’re writing about a wealthy man from an upper class background who went to University, then all those things come into play. Jim Grant? He learned in the university of life.

    1. “This sounds a bit like that, nature or nurture debate. Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd fell foul of it in Trading Places…”

      lol. Love that movie.

  6. Clearly, this question raises hot button issues that have, thankfully, been receiving the attention they deserve in the media as of late. Though I will say that, when thinking about this question, I wasn’t as focused on how character behavior is impacted by cultural background, education, or wealth in REAL people! Yes, of course, my characters are meant to be based on real people, but-still-they are fictional and so are their circumstances.

    My novels tend to be set in worlds where wealth often plays a large role, but I find that cultural background is directly tied into that–for example whether or not the character’s background and even education matches their current financial situation or, conversely, if they’re trying to hide (or run from) a less affluent past.

    In my case, I feel like it’s hard to separate the three from each other, though I do see where they can stand alone.

  7. I think the totality of one’s life experience determines their behavior. So whether we’re talking about a real person or a fictional character I don’t think it can be limited to one thing. That said, I think of the three, cultural background comes closest to determining character behavior. If you think about it it pretty much encompasses the other two anyway. I’ve known people with the best education that money can buy who haven’t got the sense to get in out of the rain. And I’ve known people who are wealthy financially but miserable in every other way, and conversely people who are poor and incredibly happy and well adjusted.

    And if we include values in cultural background, I think that’s really where behavior is determined. A wealthy person with bad values will make bad choices and become a bad guy. Whereas a poor person with good values will make good choices. The question becomes where do we get our values from?

    And, of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. One’s family and upbringing are huge factors in how we develop as adults and in my characters I always try to look back to see what made them that way. For example, Duke Rogers in White Heat and Broken Windows is scarred by his father’s calling him a screw-up all his life and that comes into play in how he reacts to other events and people. In my new novel, The Blues Don’t Care, jazz pianist Bobby Saxon also has issues with his father (hmm, is there a theme here?) and feelings of being rejected by him and not accepted for who he is. It makes him seek out different worlds and venture beyond the narrow confines of 1940s society.

    Like Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

    1. “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ~ Helen Keller

      Great quote!

  8. Next week, I’m staying up until midnight and posting first. Why? Because following all of this brilliant perspective is nigh on impossible. The other panelist have nailed it, and most of my thoughts are expressed by others (which a) shows how we’re not as unique as we want to believe and b)makes me envious because I think they said it better than I would have if I’d been first).

    Elisabeth said that the question became more difficult to unravel the more she thought about it, and I have to agree. But as I’ve thought about it over the weekend, here’s where I landed.

    None of them.

    None of them determines behavior “the most.” They determine behavior differently, and none are the most influential.

    I think culture affects a character’s behavior in rote fashion. All of those things that we think about very little and do almost automatically are likely driven by culture. Culture is a very powerful force. In human behavior, it is akin to gravity. So if nothing else acts, the cultural expectation or learned behavior will be the default.

    Wealth, I think comes into play where the behavior surrounds expectations and status. Need I say more? I’ve never been wealthy or even rich, though at the end of my law enforcement career, I did all right. When I retired and my income dropped to a third of what was, there was a lifestyle shift. There was less convenience, fewer moments of luxury (a subjective term if ever there was), and so forth. If I extrapolate what a lifetime of greater wealth would be like for someone, it boils down to the expectations that person would have from the world and their status in it. The deference, the convenience, the bubble they live in – the behavior around these aspects of life would clearly be affected in the daily interactions.

    Education also affects behavior, but I think it does so on the front end. It has an effect on how the character sees the world. While people often argue than an educated peson is more worldly, I don’t think this is always the case. I’ve known academics whose focus is very myopic. But as a general rule, education opens up the mind, and teaches it how to learn. So perhaps there is more consideration of a broader range BEFORE the behavior, and it is impacted that way.

    All three of these – culture, wealth, education – influence a character’s behavior. But I think the most influential factor are our direct experiences, especially the “big” ones. Whether joyful or traumatic, positive or negative, these more visceral moments have a greater impact than the background factors discussed in this panel. A single major incident in someone’s life – whether it is receiving some benevolence or enduring a trauma such as war or being sexually assaulted – is powerful enough to override these other elements. Yes, culture, wealth, and education will somewhat dictate how the character initially responds to the major event, but the experience of that event will become a driving force in the character’s future behavior.

    Either post-traumatic stress, or post-benevolent bliss, take your pick. These watershed moments have a more direct impact on future behavior than culture, wealth, or education, which are, in my opinion, more foundational.

  9. I think the people we grow up around and associate with have a strong affect on character. I don’t think it’s really race, or sexual orientation, or level of education, or any other superficial characteristic. It’s the people around you and how you perceive them. If you happen to grow up in a community dominated by one race, it’s not your race crafting your character–it’s the dominant and accepted mindsets and behaviors of those around you in that particular community. It doesn’t matter what color they are, if they’re rich or poor, or if they’re educated. There are certain characteristics that are very common in certain communities, but that’s caused by the culture and values of that community and has nothing to do with superficial common traits. It’s the way people think, how they treat each other, how they perceive the world that truly affects character–not how much pigment their skin has, who they’re attracted to, what country they come from, how much money they have in the bank, or what kind of education they have. We as individuals are deeper than that, more complex, and a whole lot more interesting.

    1. I agree Melissa but you explained it much better than I did! In my thinking I expanded education to mean exactly what you described–the learning a child receives before it’s even old enough to go to school. To me that is the education that shapes how a person looks at life.

    2. Nicely said.
      This is also one of the reasons it is important that our children have the opportunity to experience different lifestyles- and I use the term broadly. By the time we’re adults, we have firm ideas of what is standard, normal. Being exposed to different lifestyles can put us outside our comfort zones and lead us to make incorrect and unfair assumptions. Kids don’t assume, they just are and accept others as they come.

  10. My thoughts are along the lines of Frank’s. You can’t ask which characteristic most describes the sky: big, blue, high. Without any one, it isn’t the sky.

    Big and blue: ocean
    Big and high: mountain
    Blue and high: man made satellite

    The only way to arrive at the sky is with all three.

    Same goes for each character and their behavior. Cultural background, education, and wealth go along way to indicating who a character will react in a situation. But, in my opinion, the fourth component is personality. Characters of equal background, education and wealth will act differently based on personality. If personality weren’t an equal factor, siblings would react similar to the events. After all, they have the same culture, education, and wealth. Those three factors alone can’t explain why one sibling becomes a deadbeat and the other a pillar of the community. Why one aspires to knowledge and another to adventure.

    It’s an interesting question but paints an incomplete picture. People are more complicated than that. As our art follows life, our characters need to be the same.

    1. Good points! But TG, are siblings treated the same way within a family? Is the youngest child treated the same as the oldest? My husband, being the eldest of four brothers says definitely not. He says his brothers had it easy when it came to leaving home, and they didn’t have to get a job at fifteen to help support his widowed mum and younger brothers. Are girls treated the same as boys in a family? I doubt it and I think girls with no brothers or all brothers, and vice versa, grow up with different treatment by their parents and siblings. Some children are protected more for various reasons. eg much younger than the others, ill health, disability etc

      Fascinating stuff.

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