Third Culture Kids and Character Development

by | May 12, 2023 | Blog | 3 comments

So, I work with story. Your story, my story… all stories have a main character. This character typically faces challenges and experiences life-altering circumstances. And as a result, our hero goes through some kind of character development – they develop qualities, values and priorities as we turn the pages of their story.

Of course my favourite stories have characters who I admire or am attracted to right from the beginning. The development they go through is often around smoothing rough edges, strengthening a weakness or realising the potential they had all along. Occasionally we are offered a character with all the ‘wrong’ priorities, but who is enough of a ‘good guy’ that we are invested in seeing them go through a massive transformation, becoming who they should have been all along.

The Third Culture Kids I work with often feel their characters to be as fragmented as their stories. Instead of a story arch that sees a character develop over time, our stories can feel broken up, with distinct versions of our main character showing up in their different chapters. We can feel stuck with a plethora of under-developed protagonists, a sense of amorphous character ‘shape’ and unclear about our story’s direction as a result.

And of course, this makes sense when we consider the many starts and stops in our narrative, the changing landscapes and supporting cast of characters. Our story’s main character is doing their level best to adapt to whatever story this chapter is presenting them with. They routinely course-correct, chameleon-like, rather than feeling like a stakeholder in their own story.

I myself have spun through so many iterations of self it makes me dizzy. I’ve been…

  • privileged expat child
  • underprivileged child
  • too religious
  • not religious enough
  • wild child – free running and falling out of trees
  • cautious and chronically anxious
  • too confident
  • practically mute from shyness
  • weird
  • freak
  • conformist
  • out of place
  • invisible
  • linguistically gifted
  • linguistically incapable
  • competent
  • incompetent

No wonder our sense of our own character can feel blurry. We have been so many versions of ourselves, over and over again in so many different places. Our characters often have more experience of re-birth than development.

This shows up so often in my work with TCKs as I encounter this fear of lack of self. Who am I? we ask, and What is my life about really? Fundamentally it often comes down to What if I’m not good enough?

Of course it does. We often didn’t have long enough in one character’s ‘skin’ to perceive development, growth or maturation. We didn’t get long enough to really get to know ourselves.

Oh my this makes me weep. For my own previous characters. And for yours.

So often I ask TCKs how they feel about their early characters, and so often there is a perceptible wince as they encounter their younger selves in their mind’s eye. And I understand. I really do. I gaze on my younger self’s face and suddenly feel drawn into all her fear and confusion and feel a kind of second hand embarrassment. We carry this shame of who we were in these chapters with us into our future ones. Character development here looks less like development and more like an attempt to shake off who we used to be, a bit like those stories going for a total reincarnation of self. We don’t want to build on previous characters, we’ve decided they were wrong and we need to ground zero to start again. But here our sense of self feels flimsy, like performing a play without enough preparation time and we are fundamentally convinced we aren’t really good enough, and that others will soon see this too.

Or perhaps your younger self was living their best life? Maybe they were happy, confident and are now gazing back at the adult you are now wondering what on earth you’ve done with their story. For those TCKs who felt at home in the ‘abroad’ chapters of their stories, there can be a deep sense of betrayal felt internally as our previous iterations are left unconvinced that our character development is travelling in the right direction. Or perhaps that our story has somehow run away without us, leaving us pining for previous chapters where everything used to make sense. The character required of this current landscape is not one we find ourselves wanting to inhabit, and so we feel tension too – albeit of a different kind.

For Third Culture Kids, a sense of character development is pivotal to our happiness, sense of purpose and self-confidence. If we have previous characters we consider under-developed, we can work with our stories to find integration via compassion. We work to understand what our younger selves were experiencing and help them make sense of this in the context of fragmented timelines and complex cultural expectations. We can wrap our arms around them, draw them close and let them know we are proud of them. They started something beautiful in us, they represent parts of us via skills, qualities, values and we want to continue to build on and develop what they began. We can show them gratitude and care.

For those of us with early characters who resent the scene change, feel deskilled by it and deeply wish to return to previous chapters, we have different work we can do. Here we often fear loss of self, that adapting to our current chapter is somehow letting ourselves down, mutating into someone we don’t like. In my experience this is often tied into a sense of alienation or even disapproval of the people around us – we don’t want our story to be associated with ‘this place’ so we won’t allow our characters to develop skills, beliefs or values that may align with it. If we know we can retain value and direction no matter the next step of our story, we won’t fear it. We can allow character development when we don’t fear we will lose ourselves with the change that growth brings.

There is so much of you. So much character gleaned from your experiences. Many of these experiences gave us opportunities to develop skills and values the developed our character. And the experiences of change and loss may have interfered with how we felt able to witness these develop, solidify into a congruent character. But it’s all in our story.



  1. Aliyah N.C.

    Nice article! The point about alienation, not wanting to be a part of ‘this place,’ or loose yourself is especially something I can relate to a lot, especially when you factor in that being a tck is not always received well by larger society, so in that case it also becomes a defense mechanism from that. People can often be socialized to categorize and put people into boxes and when you don’t fit there can be a lot of backlash, rejection and discrimination that comes with that. It becomes easier to expect rejection—to “other” yourself before others can do so.

  2. Eagle Warrior

    Can you make or have you already made an article on the legal versus biological relationship a TCK has to themselves in the context of being an individual versus part of a collection?

    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      I haven’t addressed these self-relationships in quite these terms, though I’d love to hear more about this idea. Do you have resources you could share?


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