A tree makes a pretty simple character metaphor. You have roots, a base, and branches. The roots are like a character’s past, all of the things that have happened before your story starts. The base is the product of those roots—its strengths and weaknesses are derived from them. Finally, the branches of what a character will do during the story have to be grounded to the base. Everything is connected, cohesive.
The Seed and the Soil
However, a tree grows the same way every time. The seed lands in the ground, roots are sent down, a stalk is sent up, and the two grow outward together from there.
If you just want to jump into your story and let things develop as you go, this is pretty much the model that your characters will follow. You’ll flesh out who the character is in the present with the beginning of your story. Then, as you progress, the character will make decisions and you will unearth roots in the past that correspond to current action.
A word of caution here: if you don’t at least peruse your character’s history as you go along you’re likely to end up with a top-heavy character who will collapse under the weight of her unsupported (read: unmotivated) actions.
Doing Things Differently
But you have many more options than just that one. For example, if you hate outlines but still want to know who your characters are, you would probably want to grow from the roots up. You would dig through the soil of your character’s past until you know who she is on page one. From there you’re ready to explore the skies, letting the wind and the sun shape the journey.
If you know how you want your story to end, you can start the character from there, hanging a branch or two in midair. You could work back from that point, work from both ends toward the middle, or employ a hybrid. For instance, use the seed method with those branches in mind, or go all the way back to the roots and work up from there.
Make Sure Everything Connects
Any of these approaches can work, along with other slight variations I didn’t even mention. The tricky thing is your connections—from one branch to another, from roots to base, and so on. Everything needs to tie together in the end, so if you start with elements that are apart you’ll need to take extra care in bringing them together. Once you hang a branch it limits the possibilities for the branches immediately above and below it.
Freedom abounds in character creation. Pick the model that suits your style and run with it. Dig roots, thicken the truck, and stretch toward the sky. Just remember to provide support for each branch by the end of the story—if you don’t, somebody’s going to get hit in the head.
Ben Whiting is a full-time English student at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-general editor of the 10th anniversary edition of Marine Creek Reflections. He recently completed his suspense novel, Penumbra.