1.05.2016

First in Line

Sometimes you don’t have to look far to find rich sources for deep character portrayals. You merely need to ask the question: which child is my character in his family, in order of first to last? For this post I’ll limit the discussion to the first child, since this sibling’s strategies involve any later children as a matter of course.

The first consideration is the eldest child’s relationship to her parents. While being born first does not always mean that a child is dominant, or most successful, that child is forever the one who had her parents’ undivided attention while young. She also is the one who loses that attention when a second child is born—and that means she needs to work in order to keep that attention. If you look at the most binary of breakdowns, is the character intro- or extroverted? If the former, what stratagems did the child employ to keep the parents’ eyes focused on her while her more loquacious brother was chattering away? Was she a harder worker? Was she more self-indulgent, knowing she’s first? Was she resentful because the second child turned out to be an athletic star?

Now consider the firstborn’s relationship to the second child. Wanting parental attention is a characteristic of children all life long. Even sixty-year-old adults, when placed together at a family reunion, will devise ways to shine. The second child uses alternative strategies to counter the dominance of the older sibling. You can decide what these are and how the first child reacts to retain the limelight. For instance, while teenage delinquency often stems from being a bad seed, it can be a perverse way of making the parents care.  Whatever traits you devise, they do not exist in isolation: they are influenced by siblings, the same way you want your characters to be influenced by interactions with others.

As you’re devising character traits, you can keep these basic impulses in mind. A child who found that she could shine in certain ways for her parents—the well-read one, the charming one, etc.—is going to keep on using those talents to attract the attention of adult friends and business acquaintances. The ways she learned to get the upper hand with her siblings she will also use to persuade adults to bend to her will.

Exercise: Write a back story of a child who uses a home talent show in order to promote herself in her parents’ eyes. Now think through how those same methods are employed to please a boss or the like in the adult sphere. The wiles are more sophisticated, the interior planning more cunning, but aren’t the basic impulses—the narrative point of view you are using—virtually the same?

“One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.”
—Virginia Woolf

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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