Character: I is for Independence

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I is for independence.

We think of independence as part of adulthood—taking care of ourselves without parental assistance, or providing for our own needs.  Other types of independence exist, however.  Which ones will your character have or attain in your story?

This depends on several factors.  Is this person a child?  Then he may not be very independent in actual practice, but he could be in personality.  If an adult, what kind of independence does he have?

  •  Physical independence (PhI):  Lives on his own, can travel alone, and takes care of his own needs, like food, clothing, and shelter
  • Emotional independence (EI):  Can regulate his own feelings; they aren’t contingent on what other people think and don’t control him
  • Psychological independence (PI):  Makes his own decisions and trusts their efficacy

(Abbreviations are mine; I didn’t want to type independence 4,238,681 times)

Dependent people may find themselves in relationships that aren’t good for them because their EI is weak.  They may not leave the parental home in a timely manner or return constantly because they aren’t competent in PhI yet.  A low PI means they might make hasty decisions or choose something because it’s the opposite of what another character thinks they should do.

At opposite extremes, a very independent character may not seek help from others or reluctantly accepts it because he is afraid of appearing weak or is used to having to do everything alone (like Harry Potter).

This Chosen One crap is bloody stupid.  Somebody help me!

This Chosen One crap is bloody stupid.  Somebody help me!


The different types of independence and how they evolve—or clash—in a character lend themselves to story conflict.  And as we all know, you can’t have a story without conflict.

A character who is a minor probably won’t be physically independent, but he could definitely have EI and PI.  While these could be personality traits, the character could also develop them if he has no reliable adults around.

Children’s and young adult fiction, particularly dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction, often renders adults incompetent and/or ignorant or restricts their assistance in some fashion.  It even sometimes removes them entirely.  A good example is a book I read as a kid called The Girl Who Owned a City (1975) by O.T. Nelson.

In this story, ten-year-old Lisa and her little brother Todd find themselves on their own after a plague kills everyone over twelve (PhI).  Lisa has to step up to take care of not only her brother but also other children who begin to see her as a leader (PI).  In the process, she has to learn to trust those who are close to her and can help (EI), like Harry Potter does.  Lisa is forced by circumstance into all three forms of independence.

If you create an adult character, you could make things interesting by leaving one of them out.  For example, your grown-up takes care of himself—he holds down a job, pays his bills, does all basic self-care, etc.(PhI)  But he could have crippling anxiety that causes him to vacillate wildly on making any decisions (no PI).

He could be really clingy in romantic relationships (no EI).  How independent you make him will affect his family relationships too, assuming you decide to let him have children, parents, or siblings.

Oh, for God’s sake, Mycroft, stop being so annoyingly fraternal.

Oh, for God’s sake, Mycroft, stop being so annoyingly fraternal.


Destroying independence is another way you could create conflict in your story.  You could take a previously self-sufficient character and render him incapable in some way.

  • Maybe he becomes ill or injured and can no longer take care of himself
  • An emotional trauma causes him to cling to someone or something that offers comfort but isn’t necessarily good for him
  • He makes a huge mistake and begins to second-guess his decisions to the point where he is completely frozen

Whatever you decide to do with your character’s independence, remember that the vast majority of people need each other.  We’re not built to go through life’s trials without any support.  If you can twist this truth enough in either direction, your story could rocket to places you never dreamed possible.

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