Careful—this lawn jockey can bite
Last week a cousin of the fellow above flew into my neighbor’s field. It’s not that unusual to see herons in the general neighborhood—after all, I took the photo of this sharp-beaked beauty just a few miles from my house. But he was near a watercourse, where there are all kinds of wiggly things for him to eat. My neighbor’s field is weedy, scraggly land where no fish worth its saltwater would venture. So, seeing the heron fly onto the property and strike one of those heraldic heron poses was noteworthy.
Any excuse to abandon my work, I scuttled over to the window nearest the bird in my old Airstream office to watch him work. If you’ve ever watched herons at play in the fields of creation, they’re often pretty deliberate about their doings. They might neck-jut a few feet or so into some shallow water, and then fix that acute-angle head for minutes at a time, undoubtedly trying to come up with some heron haiku. This featherhead did his kind proud by freezing in place.
But then he chicken-footed forward toward our wire fence and started doing a fascinating bob and weave, his long neck shimmying from side to side, cobra-style, while he simultaneously ducked up and down. I thought for a moment that he was sick, and was about to collapse in the field. Not quite. On one of his swinging swayings, he shot that head forward to the base of the fence and came up with a big lizard in his beak. I didn’t have time to even gasp before he flipped his head a bit and swallowed him whole.
Galvanizing Readers with Electric Characters
That moment was shocking and unexpected—I was agog. The bird sauntered out of sight of the Airstream—probably to see if there were any armadillos around to play poker with—and when I came out a few minutes later to check on him, he had vamoosed.
Now, you’re going to think that I’m bending a stiff bird to make a point, but honestly, after my head had returned to my body after watching that lizard slurping, I immediately thought that the bird’s behavior was a good illustration of an approach to working with characters in stories. You can give your reader a good clap on their forehead by making a character do something astonishing once in a while.
You have to be careful here: I’m not talking about having a character spontaneously speak Swahili when they were raised in Brooklyn. I’m referring to having a character do something that’s possible (and that indeed might be integral to that character’s nature), but that’s not probable, that breaks boundaries. Something that expands the character’s potential or place in the reader’s imagination. That kind of developmental concussion can push a story, or shape it in new ways.
The Frogs Are Not What They Seem
The second nature lesson—and one that again relates to writing—is something I’d learned earlier, but was reminded of again because it’s the beginning of croaking season. By that I mean that this time of year, the frogs that do their philosophizing near our water garden start to do it more boisterously. And they are loud.
When I first heard this resonant chorus years ago, my city-boy background prompted me to think it was the loud-mouthing of some large toads, maybe even bullfrogs. I’d look all over the place for the source of the croak-storm, but I could never see the buggers. It took me many searches to finally spot one. No wonder: Pacific tree frogs, the wide-mouthed worthies that comprise this orchestra, are only a few centimeters long. But when they are soliloquizing about their romantic talents to any lady frogs in the vicinity, they give it their all. They are Danny DeVito with an aggressive hangover.
As with the heron, the frogs nudged me in a writerly direction as well: work with characters that aren’t quite what they seem. You might have a scrawny, wiry guy who turns out to have extraordinary strength, or a reserved little sister who later turns out to wail skronking bebop sax in a secret band. Stick some herons and some tree frogs in your writing—it will give it a stronger pulse. And this isn’t just for fiction: God knows that business writing could use an phrase that’s on fire or a trapdoor opening and swallowing up the beautiful bride. Wake the audience up.
Oh, you probably should stick a swallowed lizard in there every once in a while too; some characters turn out to be the eaten, not the eaters.
Any animals making mischief in your writer’s mind?