city as characterCity as character in a fiction novel? Is this even possible? The answer is yes. A long time ago, I was asked to make Toronto as character in my book Conduct in Question. I was confused at the time by this suggestion of including a city as character, but now I realize that this is possible.

You may think that overfamiliarity and intimacy with a place disqualifies a city. I wished to see Toronto with fresh eyes and from a different perspective, but this is something that is difficult to do.

I have often longed to see Toronto with the eyes of a visitor but unfortunately, that is surprisingly hard to do. I read a book called The Art of Travel, written by Alain De Botton. He wrote in the book that while we are traveling, we adapt to the country and culture we’re in. We’re much more in wonder of places such as Paris or Rome than we are of home. We are curious, and we ask a lot of questions. We look at these places with wonder in our eyes and think of the city as character in a book. However, when we are at home, we become so familiar with the sights and sounds that we take no notice of them at all. We don’t look at our own city because of overfamiliarity.

So how can a novelist make his own country as a background for his books, make the city as character in it, when he is blinded by his own surroundings? Is it possible to see his hometown with a fresh pair of eyes, and as such, use the city in his fiction?

The answer can be found in knowing the difference between intimacy and familiarity. Intimacy means a deep engagement while familiarity means superficial involvement. An intimacy with one’s own place can make the city as character very easy to do.

Another answer can be found while reading Jan Morris’ travel book. In her book, she described Torontonians as dispassionate, without joy, and quiet. She also said that the place is conducive for a lot of introspection. She’s right, in some respect. Torontonians might appear as reserved and polite that it might give off the impression of coldness and formality. With such qualities, a writer can hardly make the city as character if the place lacks vibrancy.  But for the people who have lived all their lives within Toronto, they would disagree with this observation.

Toronto: a city as character-driven as its people

Toronto is located on a huge body of water, Lake Ontario. There are ravines everywhere, these lovely chasms left in their natural state. Along St Clair Avenue, right smack in the middle of traffic, there are quaint shops and cozy cafes. You can simply turn around a different path and find yourself in a seemingly different place. Flora and fauna abound everywhere – all manner of plant life known to man can be found here aside from the occasional skunk. It is quiet, serene, and peaceful everywhere. The din of the city grows distant and all you can hear are the chirping of birds. With such a lovely setting, you can find inspiration in it and use the city as character in the novel or short story you are writing.

Within a short walk from the hubbub of the city, you can find an oasis of calm and quiet and let your imagination go on overdrive as you think of using your very own city as character taking over your own life, and using it as inspiration when writing your novel or poetry.

Toronto has two sides, which makes me think that in this respect, how alike its people are with this city. Every day we go to work, but our souls will always hanker for nature and the outdoors. Every day, we are absolutely connected to this city we live in, making the city as character connected to the very fabric and fiber of our being!

Harry Jenkins, the main protagonist in Conduct in Question, is a lawyer from Toronto. His qualities are a lot like Toronto, serving as the perfect backdrop for his story to unfold. He is quiet, shy, reserved, and prone to self-doubt. He is trapped in a dead-end job, as well as in a dead-end marriage. He is riddled with self-doubt and insecurities.

On the surface, things seem to be going just fine. But deep down, he knows that something is missing from his life. It takes murder in the ravines to shake him out of his stupor. In the second book of the trilogy, he comes face-to-face with murder once again. He feels alive again, and filled with purpose.

As the story unfolds, Harry can be compared to Toronto, the city as character representing the changes he goes through in the trilogy. Literally and metaphorically speaking, Harry falls down into the ravines of his psyche so that he can come up with the answers he has been looking for.

As a conclusion, it is possible for a city as character in a book. The city can also influence the characters and provide the background themes of a novel or a short story. The city can influence the decisions the characters make, and complement what the character is currently going through. The Osgoode Trilogy is the perfect example of how you can make the city as character in fiction.

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