Character Development,  Travel,  World building,  Writing

Mapping the World through Experiences

It is no strange concept that places leave impressions on us. We form deep connections to the places where we’ve been, places where we’ve had deep experiences. The same can be said for our characters in the stories we write. What places matter to them? How do they map their worlds?

I’d like to start by illustrating how I mapped my own world, growing up, and how my experiences in different places have contributed to who I am today. Then I’ll move on to discuss how we can apply this type of thinking to characterization and world building.

My Story

When I was young I mapped my world by the places my feet had been. Our lawn in what my mom called the projects was long and green and soft. Unbordered from one house to the next. At the tactile age of 7, I ran barefoot between the modular homes that made up our side of the street. Rectangular white boxes each with three small bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen.

I wore long necklaces fashioned out of weeds that looked like flowers. I played for hours with the kids from the other boxes. There was Desha whose Mama was mean, Kel who lived on the corner, and Marv who came out on occasion from behind the gate of his real house.

This was not my first home. Just the first home I remembered. The first home I knew every inch of. Barberry Drive.

Me with 3 of my 4 siblings outside our home on Barberry Drive (1996-ish).

That summer, when I was 7, we moved a few blocks away to Chittock Street.

Our part of Chittock was flat but I could take my bike careening down a massive hill to High street, which stretched all the way back to Barberry. That was how I mapped my world from then on: by places I could get back to. I knew how to get back from Chittock to Barberry. I could get back to Chittock from my grandma’s house and from my school. I was happy on Chittock, where I’d made new friends and could still see my old ones at school, or when I rode my bike the few blocks to see them.

The next move complicated things. We moved to a street that seemed far away. I can’t remember its name. I went to a new school—a Catholic middle school where I was one of two black kids in my grade. I didn’t know how to get there on my own. I couldn’t get myself back from there, back to my old school or my old neighborhoods. I didn’t know my way.

This move broadened my map in new ways, not in ways that I could touch or put “down on any map” (Melville’s Ishmael). In ways that showed me that what had been my whole world up until then barely registered on anyone else’s map. I saw where and how rich people lived. I realized that I was poor.

The first semester, I kept my eyes low. I rarely spoke. I was completely in shock, so much so that they enrolled me in speech services just because I was too quiet.

“You see, there’s something that happens to a child of soil when she leaves her soil. It’s a death, then a painful rebirth…”

Nnedi Okorafor — Binti: Sacred Fire

Eventually, I made friends. I visited their nice houses and lakefront properties, and while I didn’t know how to get myself to those places, I saw glimpses of what wealth and comfort looked like. I began to adjust to this fragmented, disparate lifestyle. I learned how to put forth my best qualities and hide what I did not want to be seen. It was at this time that I went from “Tylisha” to “Ty.” I have remained Ty ever since.

I love this quote from Nnedi Okorafor’s sci-fi novella, Binti: Sacred Fire: “You see, there’s something that happens to a child of soil when she leaves her soil. It’s a death, then a painful rebirth…but first you have to walk around the new world as a sort of ghost.” In middle school, I was the displaced “child of the soil.” I was a ghost and I experienced a painful rebirth.

I did learn to be happy again.

But then we moved suddenly to a new school in Grand Rapids, where many of my new peers were from even wealthier families than my old peers.

I was a ghost again, for a semester, and then I blossomed—slightly revised. This happened two more times, and then finally I went to college in Ann Arbor, just barely knowing who I was.

I would not know how to get back to anywhere until I finally got my driver’s license at 19. Then I learned the highways between the cities. (Fortunately, Google Maps was a thing by this time.) I could get back to Jackson, to my grandparents and my childhood friends. I could get to Grand Rapids to see friends from the various high schools. I could get back to the physical locations, but I couldn’t get back entirely. Things had changed. And so had I.

The house on Chittock was peach when we lived there. It was painted and then ultimately demolished a few years after we left.

All of this makes me wonder.

When characters in movies and books go home, when they say “It looks nothing’s changed,” that can’t be true, can it? At least, not entirely. Places change and so do we.

How does your main character map her world?

When writing your characters, do you consider where they’re from? Where they say they’re from? Do they associate with one place, or multiple places? How do these places influence your character’s identity? How do their travels define and redefine them? C. Blanton writes in “Narrating Self and Other: A Historical Overview” that the purpose of travel has evolved from discovering the world to discovering the self. He writes that the physical journey becomes “a psychological or symbolic one,” “a path of self-improvement and integration.” It is about introspection. So, what does your character learn about herself as she moves through her world? And how does she map it?

How does your character relate to others within the spaces that she has lived in? Is she, at first, so culturally shocked that she cannot speak or look? Is she looked at? Is she seen as different? Other? How does this affect the way she behaves and interacts with others? David Spurr, in The Rhetoric of Empire, writes about how the act of looking conveys privilege. Those who look are those with power. Those who are looked at are those without. Each time I moved as a child, I could hardly look my new teachers and peers in the eyes. Does your character look?

Finally, what does your character take away from the places where she has lived? If her own culture is one subjugated by another, what does she choose to integrate into her own lifestyle, and what does she reject? Mary Louise Pratt, author of Imperial Eyes, calls this process transculturation—merging different cultural elements. What does your character take from the cultures she encounters?

This post was largely inspired by readings I’ve done for my class on Travel Writing. As I reflect on my own travel experiences and on the ways we write about travel, I can’t help thinking about how travel manifests in the lives of my characters. I’m interested in hearing about your own experiences with travel. How has travel, regardless of distance, influenced you? If you have a WIP, how does it influence your characters? Comment below!

7 Comments

  • Stacy Tejel

    Hello Ty,

    Apparently I’m supposed to give you feedback to all of your posts and give you observations and suggestions, my responses are supposed to be lengthy and helpful. The truth of the matter is, I’m not sure I can do that. You see, this blog entry you’ve written is stunning. You drew me into your world, and made me think about what it meant to be a young kid moving and at every turn having to stop and think about who you were in the grand scheme of where you were at. You had to recognize differences and decide how they would impact you and see disparities or even outright lies about who people saw you as and who you really were and struggle against those “gazes.” Yet, you persevered, you didn’t let it break you, and here you are today writing this amazing blog entry.

    Your use of the spatial, and the geographical elements helped achieve your goals of placing yourself in a certain milieu. Also, they way you discussed and came back to the fact that you could return to Barberry Drive after moving to Chittock, but once you moved from Chittock that was no longer possible helped give the reader a sense of how it could have felt to be uprooted and planted in soil that was new for you. Then you so adeptly bring that back around when you talk about getting your license and being able to finally go back and reconnect.

    You’ve integrated the readings for this module well and I feel like I understand them in an entirely different way than I did before, which is really helpful. Also, I’ve had a difficult time thinking about my writing for a blog that is really for a class and trying to incorporate the readings and quotes; however, you did it seamlessly, and creatively. You’ve made this assignment look so easy. I enjoyed your blog post immensely.

    • tywashington

      Hi Stacy!

      Wow. Thank you for your feedback. I am smiling so hard. This was actually so hard to write. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The readings for class have been really eye-opening for me. They challenge me to examine myself and my experiences through new lenses. I was nervous to take a class on Travel Writing because I don’t consider myself someone who has done a lot of travel—not in the traditional sense. But I realized that this too is travel.

      Also, I’m blown away by your blog. It’s so beautifully done and inspiring.

      Thanks,
      Ty

  • Haley Stammen

    Ty,
    Echoing Stacy’s comments, I’m supposed to write an in-depth response to your work with constructive feedback. I definitely have lots to say, but it’s mostly praise with a teeny sprinkle of recommendations for expansion.

    This blog was absolutely beautiful to read, Ty. The imagery within the first paragraph caught my attention and hooked me as a reader right away. I loved the childhood photos. I was curious which child you were in the photograph. You all are so precious. I love the childlike wonder throughout the first half of this, as you transition into your experiences in Michigan. The juxtaposition between the experience of moving as a child versus a young adult allowed an effortless commentary on race and class to emerge. The discussion of naming echos Selasi’s discussion of the name of countries changing, so you might call attention to that reading from class. Incredible work!

    I loved the photos you included and wish there were more. I encourage you to add some photos from when you started college, as you talk a lot about that in the first part of the blog.

    When you shift your focus towards creating characters, this felt a little abrupt. I might add in a little more transition. In one of the discussions, you talked about drawing on this novel in your writing. The quote works so well within this context of your own personal journey. The readings from class are also really applicable to fiction, but there is also something to be said about the traveler as a persona or character. Fleshing this idea out a little more will really connect these two sections together.

    You have a gift for writing. I loved reading this blog entry and am so grateful that you shared this in your blog. I can’t wait to read more of your work! 🙂
    Haley

  • Bryce

    Hi Ty,

    You consistently put out incredibly personal and engaging work for your blog. I loved your introspection as you moved from town to town, mapping each area as much as you could before moving to the next. And you did a great job incorporating our readings into your post without making them feel like they were shoehorned in. You also added a few texts of your own, and I especially loved the quote you pulled from Binti: Sacred Fire.

    I definitely have to step up my blog game over the next few weeks. Great work!

  • Vance McCormick

    Ty,

    This is so creative, personal, and well-written. I found this to be truly captivating. I think you do a great job getting the reader to see things from your perspective because of the personal emotions that you show regarding the moves you made. You show the growth you made and the emotions you experienced that helped to begin to understand your own identity within the context of your surroundings.

    I think you do a great job working in sources from class into the blog without it seeming forced. Your use of source material seems seamless and natural. I don’t have much constructive criticism to offer here because I think this is fantastic the way it is. I look forward to reading more!

    Vance

  • Ken Clark

    Hey, Ty!

    Right off the bat, I could tell that your childhood surroundings were quite different from mine, and that grabbed my attention pretty effectively. I think you’ve done a fantastic job of describing those surroundings for your reader. The photo of you and your siblings is helpful, too, and I think it’s well placed near the top of the post so that your reader is likely to see it on the screen at the same time as he or she reads your introduction. They can even go back and forth between the photo and your written description if they’d like.

    Overall, this post is absolutely brilliant. Truthfully, it’s difficult for me to find much to critique. There are engrossing narrative elements, but you’ve also included references to the scholarly works we’ve read in class. The only thing that really jumped out at me was the abrupt shift you make once you get to your first (and only) subheading. After reading about your personal experiences, I was confused by a headline that addressed me directly and asked me about my main character. My initial reaction was that I didn’t have a main character; I’m not a fiction writer, and I wasn’t looking for advice on how to craft characters. So, whereas I’d felt like you telling me a story up to this point, this shift made me question whether that story was meant for me and whether I was actually a member of your intended audience.

    After thinking more about it, I realize that there are elements of fiction in travel writing, so your headline isn’t as random as I first thought, but I still think it’s too abrupt. Can you smooth out this transition? Right now, it almost seems like what precedes the subheading and what follows it are two separate posts: your first is reflective strictly in a personal sense, and your second is reflective in a more scholarly sense. Since you mention creating characters of your own, and since your post is so well crafted, you’re clearly skilled with words, and I’m sure you can smooth this out nicely!

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    – Ken

  • Rosanne Orta

    Hi, Ty
    Thank you so much for this inspiring post. I think you may have just inspired me to start a blog before I start my traveling in a couple of days. With all that we tend to do before leaving on a trip, it’s easy to forget to stop and enjoy the time. Thanks for reminding me to make time to look around and see where I am.
    Once again, you have taken your life experience and connected it to the journey of self. I did not get to live in as many places as a child, but as an adult I have never lived in any one location for more than five years. It’s been something that my son always complains about. I love how you’ve connected the ability to return “home” as the standard for whether or not you felt connected.
    The connection to other readings is flawless. My favorite quote is the one about the child and the soil. Beautiful, and I plan to steal it for discussion with my students in class!
    The visual of your childhood home and yourself and peers is a great representation of what is home to you.
    Your question about characters is related to the idea of the self and identity, but it felt less fluid in the writing than the rest of it. However, I was able to understand the connection and where you wanted to take it.
    Thanks for the inspiration. I have four trips this summer for teacher education experiences, and I expect to have lots of time for reflection.
    Thank you again!
    Rosanne

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