Two landscapes, a dirt road with and riverbed

My Tale of Two Cities and How It Made Me Think Differently About Characterization

Recently, I moved to a new city for a job. Not just a city, though, I moved back to my hometown. There are probably a hundred cliches about moving back home, and I’m probably at risk of using one, but I meant it when I said I moved to a new city. My hometown has gone through so much transformation in the 18 years since I left that to me, it’s almost unrecognizable.

And in its newness to me, I discovered an interesting phenomenon. I felt my brain changing as I navigated my new/old hometown not only because the streets had actually been changed, but it was so unlike the city I had just come from. When the essence of my surroundings changed, I began thinking differently.

Where I Came From, the Streets were Long and Straight

When I moved, I was coming from the other side of the state where geographically, the landscape is wide and filled with prairie. The city has the suggestion of a boundary with hills and rocky cliffs at its edges, and the streets have been designed in a grid. For any destination, only two or three turns are necessary, and you generally travel from point A to point B, then point B to point A.

While I lived there, the geography made me feel vulnerable yet firm in my convictions, and I lived my life in a purpose-driven way. Now, I half wonder if that was being influenced by the geography itself.

It wasn’t until I had moved away from “The Town of Long Streets” that I really noticed what an affect it had on me, and those who live in that city. If I were to characterize the city’s other residents, they tend to think in a linear fashion. They engage in tasks that require prolonged patience, like woodworking, or farming, and persevere when they have to replace their roofs every year after the seasonal hail storms. Traditional values are practiced and upheld, and you often meet individuals who have never left the area in their life.

This screams metaphor to me–that the quality of the landscape affects the way the people acted. It became even more evident to me when I observed what happened when I moved.

Where I Moved to, You Can’t Go Back the Way You Came.

When I began driving around my new/old city, it was an exercise in constant innovation. Concrete boulevards had been erected where previously there had been none, and one-ways and roundabouts had been added in other intersections. If I left from point A, it took creativity and experimentation to arrive and point B, but the route back to point A would be completely different. The streets literally forced me to keep moving forward.

It’ll be no surprise then when I describe the geography of this town and what its people are like.

The town sits in a valley of mountains, with several of them featuring prominently in the residents’ daily lives, either as landmarks or a place to recreate. In the bottom of the valley is a river famous for providing the city’s residents with an excuse to grab an inter-tube and a six-pack and spend an afternoon lazily floating on the water. Typically, the weather is mild. Rarely are there hail storms or strong winds, but it does have inversion, a layer of clouds that often hides the tops of the surrounding mountains.

The residents themselves are unconventional. They spend their time thinking or creating or recreating. There’s an unspoken expectation to be as exceptional as the geography. The city attracts and produces movie stars, olympic athletes, authors, and scientists. The city is young. Yet, like the clouds that obscure the mountains, there’s a layer of uncertainty that comes out as bravado, and wit that transforms into playful, or sometimes hurtful humor. The city is “cool” and so are the people who live in it.

When I arrived, I felt my brain changing from the focused, linear-driven tendencies of living in a town of long lines, to the spontaneous, free association that is influenced by driving in circles and turning when you feel like it, hoping it will lead somewhere interesting, if not, where you intended. I could feel, on a subtle level, the city was changing the type of person I am.

What This Means For My Writing (And Maybe Yours Too)

This epiphany feels like a writing exercise in itself: describe the landscape of a place, then create a character whose thoughts and actions are shaped by that landscape. While this may not be a unique observation (or new writing exercise for that matter), I do think it’s an important one that falls in the category of “write what you know.” I had never thought this deeply about the way my environment affected who I am, and you can bet that it will factor into my writing in the future. This probably goes without saying, but if you haven’t thought about the way your environment has shaped who you are, I highly recommend grabbing a journal and scratching a few thoughts out. It might lead to a poem, or a story.

Photo: Left – Photo by Steve Smith on Unsplash; Right – Photo by Emma Smith on Unsplash

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