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The Bedrock of Character Development


This morning, I took a walk. An easy couple of miles around the neighborhood to get some oxygen running through my brain and meditate on the hoof, admiring trees (the maple over on Lexington with its vast deep pool of shade, the enormous old willow dripping over the drainage ditch where kids practice breaking collarbones on skateboards) and nodding friendly good mornings to the others on my route, dogs and humans alike. I know all of them now. They ask about Jack in worried tones and I assure them he just needs a shorter walk these days.

I am a walker. I don’t do it because somebody tells me I need to, or that it will be good for my health. I just do, and have done since my grandmother took me with her on walks when I was four.  We walked miles, often in the cool evenings, peering in suppertime windows, and ambling over to the drugstore for C-A-N-D-Y. When I’m tired, when I’m jet lagged, when I need to think, when I’m feeling restless, when I want to explore a new city, I head out for a walk. It’s just what I do, part of the bedrock of my nature.

Another thing I do is grow things. If there is six inches of bare soil, I’ll plant flowers in it. If there is an acre, I’ll plant more. I’ve been planting and growing since my mother gave me a tiny bed by the front porch of our new house when I was twelve and I planted bachelor buttons. Which grew. And flowered!

I also write, tell stories, which I’ve been doing since I was five and made up stories to sing because I didn’t yet know how to put words on the page. And I write because I fell in love with books before I can even remember. I have cats, and will always have a cat. Even when I ran away from a too-young marriage and lived in a wretched little apartment to punish myself, I coaxed a pair of feral kittens to come live with me. (I also love dogs, but they came a little later.) Although I’ve only recently taken up painting, I’ve been drawing and shooting photos for as along as I can remember, too–often of cats and flowers and windows into other worlds.

These things give you a picture of who I am, don’t they?  What are some of yours? Can you come up with a list of the daily, ordinary things that make up the baseline of your personality?

Now move into the next layers—the sedimentary layer in my life is red sandstone, which underlies my hometown and gives it a blast of color. I choose that particular mineral because I am deeply rooted to this landscape, a third generation native, and very proud of it. I love Colorado and think it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and unless there was a very good reason, I would not actually live anywhere else. This is a particularity, a place and a passion that sets me apart from other people.

Also in this layer is my pleasure in cooking, creating new dishes—and feeding people. This layer holds my pleasure in tai chi and swimming. Hiking goes here, connected to my love of walking and my adoration of my place which loans itself to such a pursuit. But also here is the wall of postcards collected in my travels. I take particular pride in the in the ones that are far away or odd—Wineglass Bay in Tasmania, Cheddar Village in England. My shell from the Camino de Santiago is there (walking, travel, eating).

What is in your sedimentary layer? What sets you apart from others who share a similar bedrock? Has a particular place shaped you, does it hold you in the hollow of its palm? What hobbies make life more interesting to you, and what grows out of your bedrock?

Topsoil is all the other stuff. The clothes you wear, your taste in music, the genre of books, movies, television you like. The way you drive.  I mostly wear easy things–yoga pants and sweaters in the winter, hiking capris and t-shirts in the summer–because gardens, walks, cooking, writing, painting. Comfortable and easily cleaned are the most important elements. What about you? And how does that grow out of the bedrock and sedimentary layers of your life?

Understanding how these layers are formed in ourselves helps us to understand how to build them in our characters. What are the things your character will do no matter what? I have a traumatized young woman in Fierce, who loves the violin and planned to go to Julliard, but her instrument is tied to the incident that gave her PTSD, and she does not play. What she can’t stop is unconsciously fingering the positions of pieces she hears on speakers or the radio. It gives her away, over and over.

What are the sedimentary layers of your main character? How does this layer contrast and compliment the bedrock of his personality (as hiking grows from walking)? My young character is running away by cashing out her college fund and backpacking around the world. She doesn’t care about her appearance, which contrasts with the precise person she was before. She’s a loyal friend, and loves to read and sleeps around. She misses her siblings, but can’t go home.

The topsoil is formed of the things that character questionnaires sometimes ask: what is his favorite color? What food does she love the most? What’s her favorite song, and why? These can be important layering opportunities, although they are shallower points. Whether someone loves or hates kale or loves yellow more than blue are not likely to deepen the character or the plot very much.

Play with these ideas a little, first with yourself, then maybe by pondering a friend or spouse or child. One of my children wanted to argue the constitution from the time he was twelve. It is no great surprise that he became a lawyer who ponders questions of the constitution for a job. That’s bedrock. He’s also a gamer geek who loves Penny Arcade and has been spotted playing Pokemon Go. That’s sedimentary. He is also an animal lover and a vegan who finally started eating meat again when he found a farm he could trust to be humane.

Once you get the hang of the layers by applying the idea to humans you actually know, try it on your characters. I’m working on a pair of friends today and I’m going to see if I can give them more depth and power by applying these principles. In the comments, I’d love to hear you work something out aloud—either with a human (who can remain nameless) or a character.

Don’t be shy! What about yourself? Can you tell us a bedrock something, like my walking and gardens? A layer of sedimentary qualities? A sprinkling of topsoil?

About Barbara O'Neal [1]

Barbara O'Neal [2] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [3], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [4].