A recent reader comment got me thinking about how my characters get the validation that we all need, as humans, and how this affects their self-worth.
I’m imposing the analysis after-the-fact, since I didn’t start out by psychoanalyzing Wynter, Xay, and the Fairn boys. They developed on the page over the course of several years.
Standing back now I can see a few interesting patterns when it comes to how they view themselves – which affects what motivates them and what supports or messes with their mental health.
The differences between them comes from not only their personalities (I’ve written previously about their personality types) but their experiences and even their birth order. I imagine Caleb wouldn’t be quite the same today if he’d been the youngest of the three boys “raised” by Harry. And what if Jesse was the one who’d been separated from a twin? What if Indio had been the eldest – would that have been enough reason for him to take more responsibility?
(Links throughout go to the Wynter Wild Wiki, which give bios for the characters and contain spoilers.)
It becomes clear especially in book 10 that after Xay.’s carefree existence was cut short as a teenager, he lost many of the things that had validated his existence, from surfing and candy to personal freedom and his mother’s attention. Having the opportunity to explain the world (filtered through his limited experience) to Wynter restored his self-worth. Years later, Wynter doesn’t “need” that from him anymore, since she has others filling the role, and Xay’s self-worth plummets. In addition, he and Roman had a sort of a validation feedback loop going on since they were born, and he’s lost that too.
So how can he find validation now? His self-worth comes from validation by others – anyone will do, and the more the better! So a rockstar career (as long as he remains successful) might serve that purpose. He lives to perform, and like any cult guru he loves the adulation. Unlike a cult guru, he’s fortunately offering something relatively valuable and harmless.
Indio, on the other hand, performs primarily for the pleasure of playing with fellow musicians, though it’s hard to ignore the buzz the audience provides. I think validation for him needs to come from peers he respects, not random strangers. Self-improvement through developing his existing talents (such as art and music) gives him validation.
On a more fundamental level, he has always needed his mother’s validation – and she monumentally failed to provide it. Wynter has been a substitute in that regard and he made the effort to treat himself more kindly after meeting her. Then, after the fateful reunion in 05 Distortion, when Miriam cut him down, he relapsed.
Caleb has an intrinsically strong but modest sense of self-worth, thanks to the role he took on as a child. For him, validation comes from doing his duty to the best of his abilities. Duty has meant providing for and protecting his brothers, military service, taking in his sister, and doing whatever he thought was best for his nephew. He’s extremely hard on himself when he fails in these duties. His regret over not being able to help Joy ultimately leads to him flushing away his self-worth for a while (09 Broken Strings).
Jesse‘s self-worth is generally on full display and he’s proud of it! For him, it derives from others validating his intelligence and knowledge, and he especially craves the respect of other smart people. Failing that, he wants to at least be recognized for his brains. Remember all those girlfriends he tried to “change” so they would be capable of appreciating his awesomeness?
Before he developed a smidgen of tact, he must’ve been insufferable as a child, right? But cute and funny enough to get away with it. Losing control of his faculties is his greatest fear, so the panic attacks stemming from PTSD (08 Minor Key) put a dint in his self-worth.
Finally, where does Wynter‘s self-worth come from? As a child she lived with the impression she barely existed, because none of the adults in her life built her up (quite the opposite), and the children around her never stayed long. She now seems to feel most secure and validated when she can gather around her a small circle of family and friends whom she loves unconditionally and can take care of (both emotionally and by literally growing their food), while basically ignoring everyone else.
Her expression to the wider world is through music, and she loves being on stage and soaking up the amorphous mass of an audience’s energy (where she undeniable exists), but she’s uncomfortable when confronted by individual fans. Her self-worth is pretty sturdy because it’s undemanding. As she heads into adulthood, widening her world, I can see her finding new ways to get validation – which also means taking risks, of course. I don’t think she’ll value the same things as Indio (e.g. being asked to record with a famous musician) or Jesse (e.g. being told she’s smart) or Xay (e.g. having random fans love her).
Her values are closer to Caleb’s, although her sense of duty is limited to family at the moment. She’s not going to rush out to enlist in the armed forces! (Does she even have national pride?) Unlike Caleb, being creative for its own sake (rather than fixing physical fences) is incredibly validating, so I predict she’ll be putting her music out into the world for a long time to come.
Time for these five characters to climb down from the couch, at least for now.