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.
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.
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.
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!