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 Narrative goes 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).
In any natural landscape, there are relationships that are revealed in brief moments, an afternoon or a day, as in what’s revealed in the tidal shifts of the salt marsh. Repeated visits to, and readings of, the same landscape reveal more layers of relationship, the ways the elements of the ecosystem interact in times of harmony or health, as well as the ways in which they respond to traumas, drought, flood, or sudden storms, for instance. Further revelations become evident in visits to the same spot from one year to the next, discovering what blooms again, what survives, what happens to the fallen. Find the wildest place you can, give it a close reading, similar to the way you read narrative, then do some research to deepen understanding of the relationships you’ve observed. You have a new palette with which to work alongside your characters.
Taking up the practice of reading the natural environment closely doesn’t mean that you have to write stories or novels that are set in wild places. There are plenty of examples available from writers who use landscape in this way in a variety of settings. Lopez, Annie Dillard, Eudora Welty, Charles D’Ambrosio, Annie Proulx, and Andrea Barrett are a few. Some of these writers prefer to set their works in raw, wild places while others choose more civilized settings. All of them have read the natural world closely and used their observations to hold the landscape and character in the kind of relation to each other that LeGuin writes about, and in so doing to develop or reveal character. A couple of good examples are Proulx’s “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” and Barrett’s “Theories of Rain.” The Proulx story works in the wild, using the landscape as a character that shapes others; the Barrett operates in a far more civilized setting. Here, landscape works to reveal the interior and to facilitate intimacy between characters.
“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” opens with a landscape that is almost Homeric in its clarity, simplicity, and power. "Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere" (99).
Here, Proulx gives us the land as the first character. Between the cloud shadows racing and the end of the story, she will hold her characters in relation to the land again and again. Presented in its full expanse, land is the protagonist. The other characters will discover that the land is the beginning and the end, mother and father, insistent upon respect, punishing in the face of disobedience, relentless.
First to experience this place is Isaac “Ice” Dunmire, who comes almost hissing into the story, appearing to be compatible with the environment. He works himself, his ranch, and his sons with little regard for pain. It is through these sons, the eldest in particular, that Proulx shows how landscape can develop character. With their mother gone and their father working the ranch, these boys are left to be shaped by the land. "When they were still young buttons they could sleep out alone on the plain, knees raftered up on the rain, tarp drawn over their heads, listening to the water trickle past their ears" (101).
As the story moves forward, these boys continue to have their psyches formed by this “dangerous and indifferent ground.” "Jaxon, the oldest, was a top bronc buster but torn up so badly inside by the age of twenty-eight his underwear were often stained with blood" (102).
When he can no longer ride broncs, Jaxon keeps the books for the ranch, then finds work as a windmill salesman, which takes him, once again, outdoors, "bumping over the country in a Ford truck to ranches, fairs and rodeos…The jolting was enough that he said he might as well have been riding broncs" (102).
By the time they are grown men, Jaxon and his brothers have "seen it all: prairie fire, flood, blizzard, dust storm, injury, sliding beef prices, grasshopper and Mormon cricket plagues, rustlers, scours, bad horses…The Dunmires measured beauty and religion by what they rode through every day… there was a somber arrogance about them, a rigidity of attitude that said theirs was the only way" (103).
In case we’re in any doubt about what this exposure to the harsh land means in terms of character development, Proulx offers us a glimpse into the Dunmire home. There, we witness the greasy leather sofa, the static-spouting beehive radio, the sideboard with its hoard of private bottles marked with initials and names.
In this kitchen, Jaxon and one of his brothers consider a story they’ve heard about one of the neighbor’s adult sons, Ras Tinsley, who has been badly injured in a car wreck, has come home and now roams the land, exposing himself to girls on neighboring ranches. Jaxon responds to this dilemma in much the same way as the “dangerous and indifferent” land might, considering what he and his brothers need to do to stop Ras and pondering how much he will miss his brother’s relish in the same breath.
Before he heads too far afield, Jaxon pays a visit to the Tinsleys. Something is, indeed, done about Ras; he is emasculated with a rusty knife, dead within days.
In the end, despite having been shaped by the land and having become dangerous and indifferent, himself, Jaxon is no match for that which has made him. "The morning light flooded the rim of the world, poured through the window glass, colored the wall and floor, laid its yellow blanket on the reeking bed, the kitchen table and the cups of cold coffee. There was no cloud in the sky. Grasshoppers hit against the east wall in their black and yellow thousands. That was all sixty years ago and more. Those hard days are finished. The Dunmires are gone from the country, their big ranch broken in those dry years" (117).
Barrett’s “Theories of Rain” presents a place altogether more civilized—two aunts raising the orphaned Lavinia in their tidy little house and garden in 1810. Barrett uses the natural environment as a whole and characters’ relationships within it—the aunts and their tidy garden, William Bartram and his rambling one—to illuminate character and to facilitate some of the human relationships in the story.
Aunt Jane finds whole months too damp or hot or fertile to bear. The scent of box hedges and song of the mockingbird overwhelm her.
In contrast to a woman so in need of a closed tidiness as to be distressed by whole, lush months, Lavinia tries to sort through her feelings about herself and whom she might love. "Once we [Lavinia and James] met in the woods, his woods, he out marking trees for felling and I walking furiously away from the aunts, filling my lungs with air, around me the wild profusion of tulip trees and witch hazel and honeysuckle, the beeches and myrtle and sugar maples, magnolias and pitcher plants" (107).
Although theses images of the land reveal character, Barrett goes further, using the theories of rain and other hydrological phenomena as a kind of interior life that parallels that of the protagonist. "A rain that moves in swirls and gusts, pushing the leaves against the limbs, pushing my hair away from my face; then a rain hardly more than a mist… In it I am sleek and slender and smooth…a woman someone might love" (108).
Lavinia has a deeper relationship with rain, along with other forms of precipitation, than she has with the aunts. It is through rain, and the theories behind it that Lavinia finds the greatest revelation. Lavinia seeks to understand herself and her loss through an understanding of rain and other hydrological phenomena. As she makes sense of the natural world, so she makes sense of herself.
Rain obscures and reveals, facilitates conversation, and acts as a matchmaker for Lavinia and Mr. Wells, revealing what’s inside each of them. When he explains a writing about Niagara Falls, Lavinia turns to rain for an answer: "The blinding fog and cascading water, the birds losing their way in the cloud of vapor rising from the rocks. Ducks and geese and swans, their wings weighed down by the mist until they drop from the air and tip over the cataract…“What is the theory, I wanted to ask, that might make sense of this?"(116)
Mr. Wells asks her what makes her happy and she tells him that is it to be outdoors at night. "On a clear cold night when the dew is heavy, to walk on the grass between the marigolds and the Brussels sprouts and feel my skirts grow heavy with the moisture. Or to go further, into the hayfield, where the mist hands above the ground, rising nearly to my waist" (119).
As she realizes that she will always be invisible to James but that she can have a relationship with Mr. Wells, she finds her expression through water. "As the mist rises to my waist, my shoulders, my head, I am standing in a kind of rain: and in that rain I am beautiful, at least to one man. Above me a meteor cuts the air and hot stones shower down. In that light, across the field, is all I will never have. Next to me is all I will" (120).
In each of these stories, whether the characters are in the wild or in a confining civilization, whether the story uses a wide place like the prairie or focuses on one element, the natural world facilitates the characters' opening and development. Taking the time to learn to observe the natural landscape, to see the relationships within it, and to feel the truth of, provides another range of possibilities for illuminating the inner lives of character, regardless of the length or style of narrative.
Barrett, Andrea. “Theories of Rain.” Servants of the Map. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.
Kellog, Robert et al. The Nature of Narrative. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Lopez, Barry. Crossing Open Ground. New York: Random House, 1989.
LeGuin, Ursula. “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” The Ecocriticism Reader. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Proulx, Annie. “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” in Close Range. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Originally from Scotland, Heather Magruder is a freelance writer, teaching artist, yogi and trail runner now based in South Carolina. Her fiction recently won The Baker Prize in Scotland and has recently been published or is forthcoming in Northwords Now, in the UK, and Six Minute Magazine. "The Nature of Character" is an exploration of a lifelong interest in the connection between the natural environment, people and culture. When Heather isn’t tromping over hills in the southeastern United States or in Scotland, she’s playing the bagpipes or spending time with her three children, two grandchildren and dogs. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte.