When you stop to think about it, all of us are largely products of our history. We make decisions based to a large extent on our experiences up to that point, and our experiences are influenced by the choices of those close to us – who are making their choices based on their experiences. And so on, all the way back to the first sexually dimorphic organisms. Probably. Possibly further, since even asexually reproducing organisms can be affected by environment and then have that impact propagate through their clones.
The writerly term for this is backstory.
Most authors will figure out the backstory of their main characters, along with some key bits of their minor characters, but it go so wrong its either hilarious or horrible depending on your perspective. And by hilarious or horrible, I mean stuff like granddad who’s eighty or so and has vivid memories of the Napoleonic wars. And the US Civil War. Oh, and it’s late 20th century, and granddad isn’t immortal.
I believe the kindest way to describe this is “um”.
Now, okay, you’re probably not going to do that in a contemporary setting. But you can certainly cram that much living into a character backstory if you’re not careful. Partly it’s the convenience of having granddad able to tell your main characters cool stories about stuff they didn’t experience which turn out to be really useful even though they’ve been groaning to themselves every time granddad starts the whole “When I was a lad…” or “Back in the day…” But there’s only so much, “well… he gets a bit confused, you know,” you can push through. Overdo it, and instead of being pulled into your wonderful story, your readers will be wondering when granddad found time to have kids. And what grandma thought about him being off fighting monsters or wars or whatever all the time.
See, even in the most turbulent eras, there are usually bursts of “ohshitohshitohshitI’mgonnadie!” interspersed with a lot of relatively peaceful times. Even a really adventurous character probably doesn’t spend all his/her/its time battling monsters, slaying princesses and rescuing evil. Um. Or something. More likely there’s going to be a few months of high adventure with several years between times recovering, training for the next adventure, and investing the spoils of the last one (or just spending it and having way too much fun with the persons of negotiable virtue until said spoils run out and another adventure becomes a financial necessity).
Heck, even in the most war-torn areas, it’s not really battles all the time (World War 1 was something of an anomaly) in any single spot. Long sieges were rare enough to be noteworthy, and battles rarely lasted more than a few days. Even during World War 1, actually – as I understand it, the trenches were manned continuously, there’d be as close to constant artillery barrage as possible, but at the same time people were being rotated in and out all the time so an individual soldier would spend maybe a month on the front lines for every three months in the area (I’m dredging this from the stainless steel lint trap of my memory so the details might be fuzzy. If not completely wrong. But the general idea isn’t) – most individual combat engagements weren’t that long.
The point being that no matter how neat that character’s backstory is, if it involved almost non-stop adventure and said character is now elderly and relatively sane, they ain’t human. And that’s presuming you got the chronology right.
I’m not saying you need to write a biography of every named character in your books. You don’t. You do need to have some notes so you don’t accidentally regress someone’s age between novels or have Fred remember doing the thing that George did in book 1. You might not remember, but I promise you at least one fan will.
Now that I’ve managed 600 words or so of digression, I was going to say something about how character attitudes and reactions rise from their past experiences, but you know what? My recent past experiences include a cat with bowel issues, a major software release, and all the cleaning up – metaphorical and physical – both entail. I’m not sure I could manage to return to the topic and post anything sensible.
I guess that will be another post.