I once worked out that between my birth and high school graduation, I had 18 different bedrooms in 17 different houses or apartments. As a kid, I knew I moved a lot compared to other people I knew, but in retrospect, that seems excessive. Even by the standards of military families, I was a nomad. Or, more accurately, I was the baggage hanging off the nomad’s saddle. When I finally “left home” to join the Army and go to college at 18, in many ways it was more of the same. Just time for a new bedroom in a new house, or whatever. I don’t think I ever missed home the way some people might, because I never had a home.
Even as an adult, when I had arguably more control over my life circumstances, I’ve moved more than average. My friend Chris, who I met during the period of my second-to-last childhood bedroom, has joked for years he only writes my address down in pencil. Chris happens to still live in the house where he grew up. I’ve gotten confused about my current zip code more than once, but I can reel off his address without a hitch.
Writers must always cognizant of how their experiences and unconscious biases affect character and plot choices. My lack of a “home” in any meaningful sense has led to a lot of characters who are as rootless as I am. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, the danger is always that I will present my normal as the baseline normal.
And it’s not as simple as deciding a character “lived” in the same place all her life and leaving it at that. I have to understand what what means for her, and recognize all the myriad ways her rootedness doesn’t simply differ from my rootlessness but may be good and bad. What does it mean to walk the same paths for most of your life? Does it feel safe, or is it a prison? Does it become an excuse for not taking chances, or does it provide a safety net? Maybe it’s a complicated mix.
For me, the best way to better understand how my characters might answer, “Where did you grow up?” has been to write what’s called an environmental biography (or autobiography) for them. It’s a way to explore how a character feels about where they come from and where they are, to better understand their relationship with their personal landscape. This sort of thing doesn’t end up in books or stories, at least not directly. It’s a tool for me to develop deeper, richer characters who aren’t just a thinly disguised me.
Objectively, 18 childhood bedrooms is neither better nor worse than one. At our best, writers show how a myriad of lived experiences affects our characters and influences their choices—and advances the story. We show there’s no one experience that’s good and true for all people. We engage and express all the amazing complexity in the world so people like Chris can see what it’s like to have no roots, and people like me can see what it’s like to have a place to call my very own.