Friday, October 16

The "Terroir" of Character

Greetings! As I’ve mentioned before, I have a passion for wine. I also am a Certified Specialist of both Wine and Spirits, and tend to incorporate wine concepts and terminology into my non-drinking activities. Like today’s topic: The Terroir of Character.

In wine, terroir (pronounced tehr-WAUHR, with a subtle “r” sound at the end) is a French-born concept of wine as an expression of its humble beginnings as a mere grape. According to the Oxford Dictionary, terroir is “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.” Meaning pretty much everything (dirt, rainfall, sunshine, temperature changes, etc.) except for the influence of man or woman.

Mmmm, your love is sweet and crisp with warm aromas, a
hint of minerality, and a zesty finish with lingering spice.
Once the grape is harvested and the winemaker’s task of turning it into a delicious elixir begins, the influence of terroir ends. At this point, a winemaker chooses to either enhance or decrease the expression of terroir in the wine. The latter involves what we in the industry call “manipulation,” and the former involves minimizing human influence so the terroir shines through. I’m not taking sides here, because either winemaking path can result in some darn tasty wine. The difference is at what point that tastiness arrives: from the grape itself, or from how the winemaker sculpts and blends the wine.

This is a sort of Nature versus Nurture debate. And one which I think is important for us writers to consider when fleshing out our characters.

When developing our characters, writers are encouraged to give them life-changing experiences which have helped make them what they are when the reader is introduced to them. Did the hero lose a loved one as a result of his own poor judgment? Boom! He no longer trusts his own instincts. Was the heroine bullied in school? Bam! She probably has self-esteem issues. These experiences add depth and help define the character’s interactions and reactions to situations and other characters.

That would be how “Nurture” defines a character… I’m interested in the “Nature” (or terroir) of a character.

The nature of a character is inherent and cannot be changed by outside influences… it can only be enhanced or decreased, much like a winemaker can enhance or decrease terroir. You can’t turn an extrovert into an introvert. It isn’t natural; it goes against that character’s terroir. No matter how many experiences we throw at a character, what they are at their most basic, natural state still defines them. And defines how they interpret those life-experiences.

How a glass-half-full person experiences grief will be different than how a glass-half-empty character does. How a logical, “left-brained” character will deal with crisis is different than an intuitive, “right-brained” character will. How a Myers-Briggs INTJ expresses love is different than an ESFP.
Each character has his or her own terroir which defines them long before we, the writer, even get a crack at them. It's up to us to either manipulate them so they work how we need them to, or to let them dictate to us how they will affect the story. My guess is readers can enjoy a character we have sculpted into something we want them to be (remember, this effort still makes really tasty wine). However, readers will completely lose themselves in a character when we simply step back and let them shine through.
Or am I just drunk here? Let me know your thoughts!


  1. What a great post--once I figured out you didn't just have a typo in the word "terror." :-) In the nurture part, though, a person can force themselves to go against nature, though, right? An extrovert CAN turn quietly into himself? Curiouser and curouser!

    1. Trust me, spellcheck catches "terroir" every time! :-)
      I would say an extrovert CAN turn inward, just as an introvert CAN be the life of the party... but it's more draining because it IS unnatural to their nature. Though that would create some interesting character conflict, don't you think? The struggle against one's own nature. Take an introvert and put them in a seemingly extroverted role such as actor or movie star. Hmmm... I'm sensing a new storyline here... :-)

  2. Very interesting concepts. I think you are right. I am an introvert by nature, I think, but have developed the ability to approach people and strike up conversations after working in retail for so many years. But, put me in a large group of unfamiliar people and I am panicky inside. It's getting past the panic that is a triumph for me.

    And I love the idea of not getting in our character's ways and letting their true selves shine :)

  3. Great post, Ava! Love your analogy of terroir to figuring out characters--and you know, wine analogies always work for me! Nice work, sweets!