I got a 2011 calendar in the mail the other day.
When I opened the envelope and found the calendar, I felt a small wave of relief. I won’t have to buy one this year.
You see, my mother had a thing about not buying calendars, so whenever I've had to buy one, I felt slightly guilty.
Why is this important? It’s not really. Or at least, not to anyone but me.
But it proves the adage above about how hard it is to shake the things in your childhood and youth. Not that I needed more proof. I see it all around me, in everyone I get to know well enough that they start telling stories about how they grew up.
The first twenty years in particular leave their indelible marks. No one escapes scarring. I have a friend who has a perfectly nice mother. My friend acknowledges that her mother was always very supportive, but she also clearly remembers her mother saying, “You’re going to have to rely on your personality in life, because you’re no beauty.”
Now my friend is not a bowser. She doesn’t have bucked teeth or a wandering eye. She wasn’t born with a harelip. As easily attractive as any of my other friends, she makes the most of her good features and minimizes her imperfections.
And she would die before she left the house without her makeup on.
Did her mother’s comment (which her mother doesn’t even remember) cause this behavior? Probably not. Or at least not all by itself. The human psyche is, after all, a complex critter, but were I writing a character who was fastidious about her appearance, I know that growing that trait out of something in her background (and preferably her childhood) adds depth to the character. The right background detail can take what looks at first glance like egotism and turn it into insecurity, morphing what might be an unlikable character into one the reader feels sympathy for. It works even if their role in the story is that of villain.
It's a tool you need and the best part is that it's a tool that's easy to use once you grasp its importance.