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Marginal Notes

Give your Characters Roots

This summer, our niece and her family came up from Virginia to our home in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. While we were driving through the countryside checking out local craft breweries, our niece mentioned that the houses we passed, even the smaller, less-expensive ones, were neater and better cared for than what she saw back home.

I think it’s the weather, particularly the regularly-scheduled natural disaster that New Englanders call winter. We know it’s coming, we know what it will be like, we know what we need to do to get ready. And if you don’t get things done before the snow flies, you’re stuck with them until spring. That hard deadline tends to make people take responsibility for getting the fence painted or the bushes trimmed.

By contrast, I grew up in West Pittston, Pennsylvania, a small town on the Susquehanna River halfway between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Back in 1959, when the area’s main industry was anthracite coal, one mining company dug a little too close to the underside of the river, opening a hole that let most of the Susquehanna drain into the mines. In the three days it took to plug the hole, ten billion or so gallons of water poured into the tunnels, shutting down the area’s economy all at once and beginning to rot the supports for the mine shafts laced beneath the entire valley.

So in addition to ongoing depression, I grew up in a place where, every once in a while, someone’s backyard would disappear, leaving behind a gaping hole with brackish low-grade sulfuric acid – which is what you get when you steep anthracite coal in water for a couple of years – at the bottom. The entire town sagged subtly downhill on either side of Nassau Street, which followed the solid ground between two mining companies. In addition to watching the town sink, we got to play on the column dumps – the huge mounds made up of oil shale that was separated from the coal on multi-story breaker columns and simply piled nearby. The largest column dump in town – relatively small by local standards -- covered roughly a quarter of a mile square and was known to us kids as the Black Desert. Fun fact? Oil shale burns, so every once in a while, older kids would get a tire fire started and set the column dumps ablaze. The soft, blue flames outlining the mounds of shale can actually be kind of pretty, as long as you’re upwind.

Growing up in Mordor gives you a very different outlook on life than growing up in New England. After I’d moved away and gained some perspective, I came to realize that people there are far more likely to make minimal repairs on their homes, buy the cheapest brand, and fail to anticipate foreseeable emergencies. It was a land filled with cars on blocks in backyards and dead major appliances on front porches – too broken to use, too good to throw away. I still struggle to deal with my own passive streak, even after a quarter century of New England winters. Understand, the residents of Wyoming Valley are good people, most of them, as kind and honest and smart and loving as any. But they are more willing to simply let life happen to them rather than take charge. Living on ground that would occasionally open up and swallow you can do that.

When you’re working a novel, it’s easy enough to be aware of other factors that make your characters who they are – education level, family life, birth order. But don’t forget how they’ve been shaped by the places they’ve lived. It’s an influence that most people aren’t aware of in themselves, so if you can capture it in your characters, you can make them feel subtly, subconsciously authentic. So try this exercise: write a few paragraphs on where your characters come from. It may help you to get to know them better.

Living someplace prone to earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, for instance, can give you less confidence in the stability of life. Living under the huge sky of the plains can lead to some understandable humility. Even not having a fixed place – moving several times throughout your childhood, for instance – can shape you. If you’ve never been able to make lasting friendships in childhood, you might grow up either desperate for commitment or shy of it.

One thing that makes J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits what they are is the Shire -- a small, insular society more interested in genealogy and gardening than adventure, rather like England with furrier feet. Because the Shire is in their bones, the hobbits often approach their adventures like people who would prefer to be in their parlors with their feet up in front of the fire. That sense that they are out of their depth gives the adventure story an added, subtle tension that is finally resolved when they get back to hearth and home.

I suspect that most of Faulkner’s characters couldn’t have existed without the weather of the pre-air-conditioning deep south, when for months of the year the heat and humidity were both oppressive and inescapable. That kind of crushing, unrelenting pressure can make you a little crazy.

Of course, most writers tend to create characters based on their own roots without realizing it – possibly because they haven’t met and gotten to know people whose lives were shaped elsewhere. This isn’t necessarily a problem, especially if all of your characters are from the same place. But bringing in a character from somewhere else – someone who thinks differently from most of your characters in ways they might not consciously realize – can be an effective source of tension.

Our niece mentioned that she found a lot of the people in Virginia a little slow – in the “moseying right along” sense. But she also admitted that they found her to be a typical brash, driven, New York Yankee. (She’s actually from the Philadelphia end of New Jersey, but that distinction is lost on much of the rest of the country.) That kind of irreconcilable difference in personality can lead to some interesting battles, especially if neither side is fully aware of it.

So if you suspect your characters are a little flat, a little too similar, bring in an outsider. There’s a reason “a stranger comes to town” is one of the basic plots. Imagine the place your stranger comes from. What’s the weather like and what kind of effect does it have? What sorts of natural disasters do they have and how often? What sorts of resources do they have – does nature there feel abundant or hardscrabble? Is the landscape flat, rolling, mountainous – postcard or post-apocalyptic movie? And once you have your character rooted in their landscape, turn them loose on your other characters and see what happens.

Give all your characters solid roots, and they will be more individual, more complex, and above all deeply grounded.