Prime Number Magazine, the Press 53 sponsored online literary journal, publishes your favorite mediums: poetry, short stories, creative nonfiction essays; but, it does more than that! The latest issue (#23) even has a storyboard and craft essays! Below is an excerpt from one of those craft essays, “The Nature of Character: Learning to Read the Natural Landscape and Use it to Develop Characters,” by Heather Magruder.
The Nature of Character: Learning to Read the Natural Landscape and Use it to Develop Characters
The dock rises roughly nine feet above the water level, and so even farther than that above us, as we round the corner intending to turn upstream to the ramp from which we launched just a few hours before. Of the six people in our little kayaking group, none of us remembers this dock, the name Emma painted in broad, white strokes just below the high-tide mark on one of its legs. In the time we’ve been meandering through the salt marsh, the landscape has changed; this salty water has drawn down, revealing pluff mud mounds on which herons perch, exposing previously submerged oyster beds. We can no longer see, as we could at the start, over the tops of watery fields of waving spartina grass. Now we must navigate moment to moment, the legs of docks, the water-stained roots of the grass, the shallows and all that lives there. This is the nature of the South Carolina salt marsh system.
The spartina grass that grows here may look, at first glance, like just so much grass. A close observation of this environment, however, reveals layers of relationship, which reach outward, up the coast and beyond. Spartina grass, in fact, forms the basis of the whole Atlantic ecosystem. Anyone interested in this larger ecosystem can glean much from a close observation of this small marsh. For writers, the same kind of close observation—the ability to read a landscape like this one and to discern the relationships in it—provides tools that can be used to develop characters and to reveal their interior lives.
In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula LeGuin writes, “A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in particular, powerful relation to one another and to us” (153). These relationships reveal “[t]he most essential element in characterization…this inward life” (Kellog, 171). The Nature of Narrativegoes on to offer some of the ways in which “a narrative artist can project the psyches of his characters” (171). Direct narrative statement, interior monologue, and narrative analysis are among the tools Robert Kellog lists.
I think that landscape can be added to this list. The ability to read a landscape and to place characters in relation to landscape can be a powerful way to show a character’s development or to reveal a character’s interior. Although all kinds of places offer opportunities to develop and reveal character, the natural environment offers the greatest range. By natural landscape, I mean anywhere that has undergone minimal human manipulation. The wilder, the better, with completely untouched being best. The place needn’t be large, however. A small, wooded area might work, if it lies outside the boundaries of what gets manicured. I prefer this kind of environment because I believe that cultivated landscape offers a limited range of opportunities for interactions. Even a state park has been manipulated in the sense that some planner somewhere has determined what elements of the environment are to be emphasized and what elements are minimized or, in some cases, removed. The more urban the place, the more manipulations involved. By the time you’re in the city limits, you’re living in the creation of the architect, the city planner, the traffic engineer. In these human environments, every interaction—light and shadow, what rain hits when it falls, where plants grow and what animals are allowed (if any)—is somewhat contrived.
What I seek, in terms of knowledge I can use in revealing characters, is to read the landscape so well as to begin to understand it. Barry Lopez puts it best. In Crossing Open Ground, he writes: “Draw on the smell of creosote bush, or clack stones together in the dry air. Feel how light is the desiccated dropping of the kangaroo rat…These are all elements of the land, and what makes the landscape comprehensible are the relationships between them. One learns the landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it—the sparrow and the twig” (64-65).
Finish this essay and find more great writing here!