I know I’m long overdue for some historical posts around here, but being in between books and not able to share what I’m currently researching makes it hard to keep up on all the types of topics I want to cover. I’ll do my best to throw some history your way soon. But today, we’re analyzing characters.
When He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not was off with my beta readers, I had a long discussion with one of them on character maturity. It was something I was thinking about subconsciously because some of the characters are obviously more mature than the others (as I’m sure we can all say about friends and family in real life). It got me to thinking about just how in-depth character maturity really is. It’s something that I think would do all writers (myself included) good to consider more closely. Analyzing character maturity may help readers understand character motives as well.
When we talk about maturity, we tend to say someone is or isn’t mature, as though it’s one thing. In reality, maturity is made up of several different overlapping aspects, the rules of which change by location and time period.
Physical maturity – This is probably the most obvious, especially in the formative years of childhood and adolescence, and again as one becomes elderly. A person either is or isn’t on par for what’s physically normal for a given age. But keep in mind that early or delayed physical maturity can be used to give the appearance of over- or under-emotional, mental or sexual maturity. This is an interesting thing to consider both within the character’s own mindset and how others react to him/her. Of course, there are also the extreme examples of dwarves and giants, both of whom have been the subject of curiosity – loved or reviled – throughout time.
Sexual maturity – If you make this its own category, it would overlap with physical, mental and emotional maturity, as all factor into the sexual experience. Some people grow up fast, as they say, and gain sexual experience early, but that doesn’t necessarily make them sexually mature – some people never are. Some societies and time periods are more open than others, but if you judge from 20th century standards, if a person is responsible and respectable with their sexual relationships, then they likely are sexually mature, while the opposite usually holds true for the immature.
Another kind of sexual immaturity is seen those who reach adulthood while still very innocent either due to lack of sexual experience (by choice or circumstance), being sheltered from sexual influences and information, or even through abuse. If one has been abused, it can leave scars that prevent that person from ever sexually maturing. As sexuality is an important part of human life, it doesn’t hurt to examine your characters’ sexual maturity and more importantly why they are the way they are, especially if sex is a tool they use to get what they want or something they overtly shy away from.
Mental maturity – This has to do with the intellect and processing of information, both the kind you learn in school and general social cues. As with physical maturity, there are certain standards by which this is measured, and these have changed over the centuries. It used to be that women were not taught biology because it was considered too taxing for the female mind, whereas botany was perfectly acceptable for a woman to learn. When someone is young and overly mentally mature, we tend to call them “precocious,” whereas when they are older, they might be labeled as “pedantic.” Those who are less mentally mature for their age (even if there is a biological reason for it, such as a disease or birth defect) tend to be considered slow, or called degrading terms that I shouldn’t repeat here. In many time periods, people who were highly mentally mature were considered touched by the gods or at least called geniuses (or sometimes mad), while those who were mentally immature were abused or at least taken advantage of.
Emotional maturity – Mental and emotional maturity are closely related, and some may even argue are one in the same. To me, there is a difference. How a person handles their emotions is important to understanding how they will react in a given situation and hence, how those around them will react. Does that person easily fly off the handle and throw a hissy fit? That might be acceptable for a modern toddler, but for a Renaissance child of the nobility or anyone who is considered an adult, it is unacceptable behavior. On the other hand, in today’s world where emotions are more openly accepted, someone who in other times would have been lauded as stoic, may seem emotionally stunted. Throughout time, women have been considered less emotionally mature than men, more likely to succumb to hysteria, the vapors, faint or cry too much. Even today, women who express emotion, especially in the workplace, are considered weak, less emotionally mature than those who hide their feelings as men have traditionally (maturely) been taught to do.
Spiritual maturity – The importance of this will vary depending on how vital religion is to your characters and their world. In an atheistic society, it may matter little, whereas in the Middle Ages, it could be the key to life and death. I look at it from the perspective of the person’s relationship with their religion. On one end of the continuum, we have where we are when we’re little, the time we tend to do as we’re told and follow blindly what’s considered right and wrong. On the opposite end, as we age, we develop a more independent understanding of our faith, regardless of how closely we adhere to it.
Again, this varies by time period and likely wouldn’t have been heavily questioned before the Age of Enlightenment, before which religion was pretty infallible in society. Religions have always recognized some level of spiritual maturity, as most have what they call the “age of reason,” the age at which someone is considered mature enough to be held responsible for their sins. In general, throughout history women were thought to have little or no capability for spiritual maturity, hence the need to have a man (a priest, father, husband or brother) to guide them and their lack of access to subjects such as theology. For many centuries, it was debated whether or not women even had souls.
To use a pop culture example, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is clearly physically and mentally mature, but given his inability to understand social cues and offer basic emotional responses like empathy, isn’t very emotionally or mentally mature. And given his relationship with Amy, we know he’s not very sexually mature, either.
He’s an extreme, of course, but he shows how tweaking the level of a character’s maturity in even one area can make him or her stand out from the crowd. As the author, you get to play God and decide which one(s). Knowing why can help you weave a strong back story for your character, and may even lead you to areas of tension between characters or in circumstance that can make your story exciting.
What are your thoughts on character maturity? Do you agree or disagree with my classifications? How closely do you consider it when writing or reading?