Monday, January 14, 2013

Well-Grounded Characters - What's Beneath Our Feet

Two kinds of lava flows, new a'a over old pahoehoe.
The next time you pick up your current read, consider this - do you know what the characters are standing upon?  Can you see it in your mind?  Has the author added some text that allows you to get a real feel for your footing, so to speak?

Authors will speak of a reader being "grounded" in the text if the reader has a good sense of what the surroundings are, where the characters exist in this space, and how they move through it.  An ungrounded reader is less invested and less in touch with the story.  Keeping the reader grounded is a key element to good writing.

Not surprisingly, one way an author can do this is by examining the ground, literally.  Our connection with the ground is very powerful, and evokes a whole suite of sensations from all the senses.  We can smell grass, feel our balance waver as we hop from one rock to another, hear gravel crunch, and see the colors of the concrete or linoleum beneath our feet.  Depending on the material - salt flats, say - we might even be able to taste the ground. 

One of the most evocative memories I have of the ground under my feet is walking on a old, hardened lava flow.  Lava flows come in two types, "pahoehoe" and "a'a."  Pahoehoe has a relatively low viscosity, and hardens with a surface texture that resembles smooth, thick ropes.  A'a is highly viscous, and when it moves it more resembles a tumbling pile of black concrete than a flow.  When it hardens, the surface retains that broken concrete block texture.  Walking on it is very difficult, with clinky, pointed blocks of various sizes shifting under each foot.  The glassy material in the flow makes it painful to fall, and likely to rip up clothing that is dragged across it.  The clanky sound, the need to pay attention to every single part of a step, and the subtle sort of flinty, gunpowdery smell, all made the experience very memorable.

Do you remember a passage where an author focused on the ground?  How did the characters move over it, and how did or didn't it change their actions or the plot?  Did their feeling more grounded help you feel that way?  What is your most vivid memory of the ground beneath you?

Image Credit:  USGS Volcano Hazards Program, Glossary A'A 

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