SO OFTEN IN TRAVEL WRITING — particularly in travel blogs — there’s a total absence of character interaction, as if the narrator operated inside a vacuum. He or she will be in whatever given terrain — a cave in Ireland, a cafe in Buenos Aires, on a river in Western North Carolina — and either there will be no mention of other characters at all, or if there is, they’ll be stripped down to the most mechanical, perfunctory level.
Transform Your Travel Writing, Pt. 2: You’re Not in a Vacuum
The clumsiest instances of this are when other characters simply show up through some (typically overblown) plot point. For example, halfway through a story about rafting on the Chattooga, a nameless “guide” to whom we’ve had no introduction, no prior description, suddenly appears:
As we dug in and headed toward the biggest rapid, the guide yelled, “All forward!”
Who is this nameless guide? Did he or she suddenly just drop into the raft from space?
Whether writers are cognizant of it or not, this way of describing (or failing to describe) other people can misrepresent how you travel, how you see others, how you interact. Going back to the rafting example: If you were on this trip, would you not ask the guide’s name, try to get to know them at least somewhat, from the very beginning of the trip?
Of course you would.
Likely, you’d be very observant of this person, especially as your safety depended on them. And to take this to another, more emotional level, if you were nervous at all about the experience, you might be dialing in very carefully to any subtle cues they gave off: Did they seem anxious like a rookie? Or were they confident? Did this confidence put you at ease, or did it seem so gung-ho that it alienated you, made you feel inadequate or out of place?
Notice how even thinking about these questions now gets you imagining this “guide” — let’s call her Emma — and what she looks like, where she’s from, how she makes you feel.
Remember that these interactions, these moments meeting “Emma” — or whoever it may be — are what make up your moment-to-moment, day-to-day experience as a traveler. You’re not out there in a vacuum; it’s not all just some depopulated travel “ride.”
Here’s an example: On a recent trip to Oahu, I could’ve just talked about the waves and the hotels and restaurants. But that wasn’t my experience at all. What impacted me — and what I wanted to share about my experience — was the people.
Take this example of how I introduced George Kam:
Sunny [Garcia] taking his place as a mentor, a kind of ambassador of Aloha for the next generation, fit into a long lineage of Hawaiian watermen and waterwomen going back to Duke [Kahanamoku], and in more recent times Eddie Aikau, Gerry Lopez, and others whose connection to the water was so pure and inspiring that they became teachers and guardians for others.
Thus, I felt extremely humbled (and slightly nervous) when, a couple days later, I was to meet Quiksilver’s Ambassador of Aloha, George Kam. George was in his early 50s and had a buoyant, warm demeanor, smiling as if you were one of his long lost cousins.
“Just tell me what you feel like doing today,” I said. “I’m down for whatever.”
“First thing we need to do is get you outfitted,” he said, laughing at my paint-splattered, worn out Hurley trunks. “We can’t have you going out there looking like that.”
Notice how the narrator’s “introduction” of George Kam accomplishes several things:
- It gives context, explaining how George fits into a certain tradition within Hawaiian culture as well as his current work / “role.”
- It expresses emotion, giving a sense of the narrator’s respect and even feelings of intimidation (which will later set up the opportunity for ‘demystifying’ the character through their interactions).
- It gives physical details that register on an emotional level: “buoyant, warm demeanor, smiling as if you were one of his long lost cousins.”
- It’s built around interaction and dialogue, not just telling how the character is, but portraying them through an exchange.
In the next article in this series, we’ll look at more ways to develop these points. For now, ask yourself: Is the narrator in your travel stories operating in a vacuum? How are you portraying other characters?