Monday, September 24, 2018

Making An Environment Into A Character


One of my favorite characters to write about is the city of Chicago. From my first home just north of 79th Street to my days in Little Italy, Tri-Taylor, Ukrainian Village and the Loop, and even now as I live in the suburbs, Chicago has always resonated with me. It lives within me, providing a warmth like a slice of deep-dish pizza and following me wherever I travel, making sure that no matter where I am, I never put ketchup on a hot dog.

How can you not love this city?
Deep reservoirs of affection like this are what writers need to tap into constantly, transferring that bond to whatever they connect with, then smearing it all over the page. Maybe it isn’t an intimate connection to Chicago – I can accept that. But whatever they react to, that needs to be their conduit into writing passionately. Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg and countless others wrote stories and essays that were love songs to the Windy City, and every other city has plenty of writers romancing every street.

But how do we turn this love of something into anything more than an essay or poem on how much we care for the subject? My love of Chicago is very strong, but unless all my stories take place in Chicago, is it really going to work?

The best route to take when using a place or time as a metaphor for the character is to find the traits that they have in common and draw parallels between the two. This both personifies the place and bonds it with the character, while allowing the reader to see additional features of one in the other – features maybe the author never noticed.

So let’s go back to my love of Chicago. If I place that into a character, it needs to be communicated as that character’s love, but in a way where the city claims its own identity. In this piece from a working manuscript, I merge this love of the city with a guy named Tom:

     Stepping onto Michigan Avenue, the city grabbed Tom as no other place could. All his senses came alive from Chicago’s firm embrace. He merged in with the steady flow of commuters marching toward the Loop, industrious soldiers moving forward to turn the wheels of commerce. All the aftershaves, perfumes, lotions and body scents fused into a grand aroma of the working masses. Thousands of feet stepped in time with honking horns and rumbling buses, this powerful workforce shaking the very sidewalks in perfect rhythm with Tom’s heartbeat. Skateboarders bounced over the crosswalks, grinding off the railings and bus-stop benches, effortlessly weaving through the structured chaos of the morning commute. Tom was back in his city, and for the first time in too long, he felt alive. One skateboarder swept by Tom’s side before looping around the newsstand.
     “That kid’s going to be famous someday,” Tom thought. That’s what Chicago did for people.

Chicago becomes Tom, Tom becomes Chicago. From that point forward, any mention of the city and its characteristics becomes something we identify in Tom. An entire metropolis now contributes to our character, and all to the reader’s benefit. And Chicago itself becomes alive, vibrant, and real.

The additional benefit of this tool is that once we establish this relationship, we can portray changes of mood by changing the character’s perspective toward that which he is bonded to. If we revisit Tom after a bad weekend, we portray his bad mood through his outlook on the city:

     Chicago’s heavy air assaulted his senses, confronting him the moment he stepped onto Michigan Avenue. Commuters marched toward the Loop, mindless cattle walking toward the economic slaughterhouse that cut away their souls one paycheck at a time. The air reeked of the chaotic riot of perfumes and colognes trying to mask the nauseating stench of condemnation. Everyone droned forward, thousands of people each in their own little bubble of self-concern, crossing streets against the light as if traffic owed them special consideration. So many people, so little consideration even for the souls bumping shoulders with them. The morning skateboarders sliced and cut in front of every commuter possible, more concerned about the railings and bus-stop benches than people. A skateboarder lost his balance, his board landing at Tom’s feet. He watched at the twenty-something guy with blond dreadlocks get up from the sidewalk.
     The guy laughed. “Sorry about that.”
     “You’re sorry?” Tom picked up the guy’s board, looked back at him, then flung the skateboard into Michigan Avenue traffic. “Now you’re sorry.”

Same city, same morning commute, but the different description creates an entirely new environment and sketches a different mindset for Tom. The passion for the subject matter is the same, as is the connection to the city. But love is no longer the emotion of the day.

Maybe your romantic interest in life isn’t Chicago. That’s okay. A part of finding your voice as a writer is finding that thing (or things) that you really connect with, then exploring that bond. Think about it, write about it, connect yourself to whatever it may be. As you draw these connections, you develop the language that will allow your characters to show the same passion for the things they connect with. They will see the unseen energies, feel the pulse of the city, or accept the warm embrace of the world around them.

But hopefully they won’t throw that guy’s board into rush-hour traffic on Michigan Avenue. I still feel a little bad about that.


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