I have seen a lot of documentaries about animals over the last few years because a little boy in my life loves them. I find them interesting, even fascinating. What I didn’t expect to find was inspiration for my writing.
If my characters were animals, I think it would be necessary to observe the species of animals I had chosen for my characters. One of my favorite books is Watership Down by Richard Adams. It is a fantasy about a society of wild rabbits in England. Even though the animals talk, Mr. Adams did research on wild rabbits and has his characters act as much like wild rabbits as is possible within the rules of the fantasy he creates. Grounding his story with these facts makes the fantasy much more appealing.
I write about real people in a contemporary setting. The main character is a teenager living in the West Virginia mountains. Living close to nature, he often describes people in terms of the animals they remind him of. A very fat man is described like a toad, a family of small-time crooks like a pack of stray dogs. I use animal imagery because almost everybody can understand my comparisons and it fits with my narrator’s life experience.
Watching animals documentaries has shown my new ways that animals behave that I can use in my comparisons. When an animal is stalking, it moves quickly and precisely. In between movements, the animal seems unnaturally still. I can use those observations when describing a character sneaking around or following someone.
Crows are one of the most intelligent of animals. They watch people and learn from us. Knowing this, crows catch my attention when I see them. I have a character who has a reputation for being crazy, and I decided to describe him like the crows he befriends — dark, alert, intelligent but still wild.
I pick comparisons people will understand. I can’t use something too obscure. I watched a program on sloths, native to Central and South America. Because they are built to live their whole lives in trees, they move very strangely if they are forced to crawl across the ground. It’s very weird and creepy to watch. But if I wrote “The man crawled across the ground like a desperate sloth” no one would know what I was talking about.
Even better than watching filmed animal behavior is watching it in person. I’ll write about that on Tuesday.