Cup of Carolina Wren photographed by Suzanne LaPalme
If you’re like me, you have writerly tendencies, I mean, irritatingly stubborn habits of style that vex you. When facing these, I really appreciate an icebreaker, like one of those party games that might feel dumb but gets me out of talking to/about the same old people the same old way. This can be especially helpful with necessary secondary characters. They don’t have your heart like your protagonists or your oddball sidekicks, but they’re critical to the action and can’t read like wallpaper. So here’s one idea: If you’re fatigued to distraction and self-loathing by the way you’re characterizing, but can’t seem to think up anything new, try writing a character as an animal.
I do NOT mean writing “She was a wren of a woman.” You’ve written that and you’re done, what else can be said? No, no. Keep the identification of your character’s spirit animal to yourself. But, when you struggle for a description or a reaction beyond the usual (are you typically a tracer of eyebrow heights, an eye-color obsessive, a smile documenter, a recorder of chuckles, a wink-counter, a freezer of glances, or sketcher of fidgets, until you scream at your own monotony?), then take a break from yourself. Think of what’s true for the wren.
In whatever scene this character appears, you can pop in elements of the wren’s coloration, its high activity level, its attribution of humility and industriousness, how it disappears when alarmed, its ground-feeding focus on mundane details, its willingness to chat and chat. “Nosy busybody” gets repetitive, but it can be tough to think of other, richer ways to imply that. If you start dotting in the characteristics of a wren or whatever animal fits, without even saying that’s what you’re doing, the characterization starts to get round and full and to hold together. Moreover, it rings true with us as readers.
Whether country or city folk, we know something about ubiquitous little brown birds, and they are part of our subconscious and collective understanding of the world, as well as part of our conscious education. A la Jung, animals are archetypes, too. So beyond earth-wise mothers and power-mad tyrants, tapping into this kind of animal archetype, without using overtly comparative terminology or labeling, I think you may be surprised how well readers make the intuitive leaps of understanding. They’ll comprehend the characters in subtler ways than simply recalling what you flat-out narrated at them. When bright readers (and all ours are clever, of course!) get to fill these imaginative gaps themselves, it’s an enjoyable process that engages them more deeply with the writing. Most of all, a secret animal identity like this can bring revelations to the writer of what might be in-type and playing against it for a particular character. Then, the writer can thoughtfully employ either side of that axis as the story demands. A character’s spirit animal does all this while giving you a blessedly new range of behaviors, sights, sounds, even smells to get you out of your description-reaction rut.
So, if you have a secondary characters that feel boring or repetitve, try writing them with secret spirit animals!
Image via the lovely Birds and Blooms site.