Friday, November 21, 2014

Reflecting Surfaces: Using the “Landscape” to Make Character Come Alive



A memoirist in one of my online classes was trying to write about the sadness she felt at her father’s unexpected death. Her feedback group gave her an unexpected response: while it was clear she was very sad, when they heard her speak of his death, her feelings on the page were abstract, hard to really grasp.


“They don’t feel any of the sadness I feel,” she told me. She cried as she wrote, so this bland response confused her.

When I read the chapter, I too noticed how distant the writing felt. My take-away was an almost-intellectual sorrow, a wistfulness. Not a strong emotion.

A very intelligent woman, this writer worked as a psychologist. She knew people, she understood how they ticked. But she hid the true landscape of her character, herself, behind this thoughtful approach to life. It had infiltrated her prose.

When I spoke of this, she got it. She knew it was a key to enlivening her writing. So she tried different ways of bringing herself to life on the pages of her memoir: using more body sensations, more gestures, refining her action and dialogue. It was only when she began to work with the inner and outer landscape of each scene, that her character was revealed. And in surprising ways that actually surprised her too-and taught her more about her own grieving process.

Novelist Elizabeth George, in her book Write Away, refers to this the “landscape” of the character as the inner and outer beliefs and history we live within. I see it as a large “container” that reflects back ourselves as we interact with it. You could say it includes our culture, beliefs, spirituality, even our history. Like any reflecting surface, it shows our inner and outer workings.

You have these reflecting surfaces all around you. Look at the room or car or office cube where you’re sitting right now, reading this post. Doesn’t it reflect something about you? Maybe your choices made manifest in color, shape, texture; in photographs or art. Maybe in its order or disarray. Maybe in the music playing on your phone, the food nearby. Even the temperature you’re most comfortable at.

What can you find out about your characters on the page, those real or imagined people you seek to make more vivid for readers? How can you place these characters in landscapes or containers that tell your readers more about this person, and whether they should invest in that person’s story?

You can start with outer setting, the outer container, as revealed through the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch (texture and temperature), and smell. It always helps to place readers in certain time of day or night, in a room or garden or other specific location, to let them know how the light falls on an object or a wall or someone's arm, what smells and sounds surround the character. Some writers skim over these details, thinking they slow down the prose. Bad call. These sensory details are the main transporters of emotion for a reader.

If you don’t believe me: Imagine a play set on a blank stage--no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. OK, maybe nothing is an atmosphere, but only if the actors are very talented and can create something from that nothing. It's much easier for the audience to perceive, say, an 1850s interior farmhouse if there are furnishings and a woodstove and windows with eyelet curtains.   Not too much, but some of these details, will build believable landscape for the reader.

So start there. Even before you sink into the intellectual territory, build the outer landscape. Remember that readers engage most when we can "be" in the place you're describing and make up our own minds about the people who inhabit it.