Thursday, January 24, 2019

Trees and Character Development

by Karen Rose Smith


The other day I was sitting in our car in the parking lot of a nearby shopping complex, waiting for my husband to do a quick in-and-out errand.  I put down my phone for a bit and just observed the comings and goings--delivery trucks, store fronts, people scurrying in and out of stores, cars coming and going.  Then my attention focused on the landscape--melting snow, shrubbery, trees devoid of their leaves. 

As I scanned the parking lot, I was struck by the multitude of shapes displayed among the trees.  While they are beautiful with their summer foliage, the structure that is revealed without their foliage is also striking.  Each variety of tree sported a different wooden structure.  Some had short trunks with branches suddenly spreading in all directions.  Other were tall and stately with branches balancing their height.  Others displayed a fan-like array of limbs.  Some were geometrically even, other were less symmetrical...probably the result of human trimming.  All of these attributes are hidden by foliage much of the year. 

While I was engaged in my arbor study, I was suddenly struck at how similar tress were to the way I develop characters for my books.  Before I worry about their eye color, hair length, complexion, clothing choices, even occupations, I need to develop a much more important layer of their makeup.  Just like the underlying structure of trees that are hidden by leaves, characters need a structure that is much more important than the outer layer we see when we first meet them.  What is their familial background?  What kind of childhood did they have?  What traumatic events have shaped the person that they are?  Are they guilt-ridden?  Are they kind?  Are they fun to be around?  All the things that are the soul of a person need to be developed before their physical appearance. 

And while I'm writing, it is so important not to let this background information fall by the wayside.  This is the stuff that gives birth to conflict and drives an emotional story.   

Outward appearance can enhance inner qualities.  As a writer, I have to use one to show the other.  Hopefully this will give my readers characters to fall in love with, to become friends with  and identify with.

What is your favorite all-time character in any book you ever read?

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