Saturday, September 3, 2011

Character Development Tip -- The Body Repeats the Landscape

"The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other." Meridel Le Sueur

Lately I've been thinking much about landscape, having recognized anew how forcefully and viscerally my landscape is the north shore of P.E.I. There is something at an energy level that ties me to that landscape; it's where I feel most at home, most grounded.

When I discussed this with a dear friend of mine, the fine writer, Deirdre Kessler, she told me of a conference she'd attended in Tasmania, "Sounding the Earth." Australian Aboriginal people have long known this concept -- it has been discussed and celebrated in Bruce Chatwin's book The Songlines. The essential concept is that the people and the land are one: we sing the land into being. What I hadn't understood until Deirdre followed through on this idea, is that the land sings you back.

The land sings you back.

The concept is so heart-stopping, so powerful, I lay awake the night after I heard this, expanded and lost in the beauty of the idea, overcome and humbled by the generosity of the land.

And I came to understand better my connection with my landscape. It's so visceral, it's so powerful, because the land has sung me back. There. In my landscape.

For years now I've collected rocks from the north shore of P.E.I. each time we visited. Small stones. It's been my way of linking solidly to my landscape. Of having a tangible presence of my landscape in my life.

So, how does this apply to writing and character development? Well, developing character is often a subtle process that leaps and darts beyond the obvious biographical data and information -- the facts -- that we accumulate about our characters. To know our characters, really know and understand their inner beings, their souls, we sometimes need oblique, tangential ways to slide in. Sideways glances.

So: what is your character's landscape? Where do they feel most at home? Where do they sing the land, and most importantly, which landscape sings them back, affirming their connection to that place?

When I thought about this, I knew that Red, my character in That Boy Red  lived in his landscape. It was the south-eastern part of P.E.I., where he was born and grew up. It isn't as connected to the ocean; no, his landscape is the gently curved farm land where he lives.

Dilly, now, my character in The Trouble With Dilly her landscape is in part the urban world in which she lives, a bustling, concrete city. But it's also -- and I don't know how or why I know this, I just do -- a desert. A desert with beautiful sculpted dunes, curving and shifting with the wind, and wide open skies. Dilly has never been there. Not yet. But that is her landscape too. I don't know for sure where this landscape is, just that it is her landscape.

For Calantha, in The Sower of Tales, her landscape is the one imagined in the book. It is the world I envisioned, which strangely enough, is much like the hilly landscape of Greece. When I wrote the book, I had never been to Greece. It was a librarian who loved the book who told me that the landscape I'd described was eerily like Greece. When I did go to Greece, I saw it immediately -- it was completely and utterly familiar as Calantha's landscape. But for Calantha, her landscape isn't just the plains in which she lives -- no, it's the top of the Eastern mountain, where the Sower of Tales lives.

So, who is your character? Where is her/his landscape? Is it where she/he lives, or is it somewhere else? Where does your character sing the land? Where does the land sing her back?

Where is the landscape that tugs and pulls through a fine, pulsing, unbreakable link so she must and will find it, and so she must go back?

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