Your Character’s Umvelt

Inside-of-a-Dog-coverWhat is your character’s umwelt?

Yes, umwelt.

Pronounced OOM-velt.

I came across this concept while reading Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.

(If you have a dog, like dogs, are curious about dogs and dog behavior, it’s a fascinating book.)

Anyway, the idea of the umwelt came from an early 20th Century German biologist named Jakob von Uexküll.

To quote Horowitz: “Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.”

As illustration, consider the lowly deer tick.

Von Uexküll tried to imagine life from the tick’s point of view.

A tick will climb to a high perch, like a tall blade of grass.

The tick is waiting for one particular smell.

Sight is no good; the tick is blind.

Sounds are irrelevant.

The tick is waiting for a whiff of butyric acid, “a fatty acid emitted by warm-blooded creatures.”

(We humans smell butyric acid as sweat.)

When the tick smells what it needs to smell, it drops from its perch.

Its hope during freefall, at that moment in time, is to land on an animal, get its teeth into some skin, and drink blood.

If all goes well, the tick will feed once, drop off, lay eggs.

And die.

That’s the tick’s self-world.

Its umvelt.

Its purpose, wants, needs, desires.

The tick, after all, much like your protagonist and your villain (both), are heroes of their own lives.

Doing a bit more research on the umvelt, I found this article from a website called The Edge and a terrific additional way of thinking about it, that the umvelt is the animal’s “entire objective reality.”

It works for people, too.

Your characters.

“Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense?” the article asked. “In the movie ‘The Truman Show,’ the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point an interviewer asks the producer, ‘Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?’ The producer replies, ‘We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented.’ We accept our umwelt and stop there.”

For instance, we humans accept those things we can and cannot smell with our noses. Any ordinary dog would laugh at our feeble powers with smell.

But we accept them.

What is your character’s umvelt?

What reality have they accepted? What bigger reality are they oblivious to? What senses or abilities are their strengths? Their weaknesses? How were they put together—for what purpose? What will they consider success? Or failure?

Get to know your character's umvelt might help sharpen your character in a distinctive, new way.

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ALSO: I was blown away by all the kind emails, messages, tweets, Facebook posts and texts after being named Writer of the Year.

Thank you all so much!

RMFW, quite simply, rocks.

Hope to see you all at Colorado Gold so I can thank you in person.

The Story In My Head

There’s a recent TV commercial that shows people listening to audiobooks, and as they listen, the story comes to life around them. A woman on the beach listens to a science fiction story and her surroundings alter into an inter-planetary landscape. A young man caught up in a historical novel looks up to see his breakfast table peopled with characters in eighteenth-century garb. It’s a great commercial, and reminds me vividly of how the stories I’m writing take over my life. Or at least, they used to.

For years, I carried the world of whatever book I was working on around in my head. While I did laundry or the dishes, I would find myself transported to a longhouse in ninth century Norway or a castle in eleventh century Wales. As I checked out books for patrons in my job at the library, the young mother with toddlers would transform into my heroine in a medieval gown. Fetching music CD’s for a young man in a t-shirt and cargo shorts, I envisioned my hero in chain mail and tattered surcote.

I would think about my story before going to sleep at night, when I woke up in the morning and those times during the day when routine tasks allowed my mind to wander. My body might be functioning in the everyday world, but my mind was elsewhere, consumed by the struggles and passions of my characters.

Much of my writing time was in the morning before work. Often in the middle of a scene, I would realize I had to quit or I would be late. I would get up from my computer in a trance-like state, grab my coat, drive to work, greet my coworkers and take my place at the circulation desk. Then, and only then, would I leave my story completely behind and re-enter the reality of my life.

For so long, having a story alive in my head was a constant. Then, a few years ago, it left me. I no longer walked around seeing historical landscapes or struggled with my characters’ dilemmas during the work day. Unless I was at the computer and actively writing fiction, I seldom thought about my books. Writing and my stories became a separate part of my life.

The change may have come about because I was so discouraged about my career. So many editors and agents had failed to engage with my characters and come to love them, it started to feel like they were real only to me. I decided I was writing mainly for myself. As a result, my stories became less compelling and consuming. My characters lost their flesh and blood power and grew transparent and frail and fictional.

Another reason for the change might be that my head became filled with other creative urges. My mind’s-eye saw plans for my garden, or remodeling ideas for my house. I imagined scenery from the trips I was planning, rather than the landscapes of the stories I was writing. Now that I had the time and money to indulge my longing for beauty and adventure in the real world, I started to rely it, rather on the world in my head, which had been my companion since childhood.

Taking a year off from writing fiction to indie-publish several books didn’t help either. I spend my creative energy thinking up cover images and blurbs, rather than planning novels. When I finally got back to writing fiction, it was much more difficult. The books didn’t follow me around, demanding my attention. I could shut them away, limiting the power of my stories to affect me to the small amount of time I was actually writing. Because I wasn’t spending as much time with them, solving my characters’ problems took a lot longer. I should have been able to write faster, since I was more experienced and had more free time to write, but it was taking longer and longer for me to finish a book.

But something happened over this past year. I once again started to feel that real life wasn’t enough. My garden lies dormant half the year. The time between trips stretches into months. There are no compelling home improvement projects to obsess over. What’s a girl to do? Well, write, of course. And not just write, but let the story take over my life.

It’s there waiting for me when I wake up. Niggling in my consciousness during the day. Blooming into life as I try to fall asleep. The story in my head is back. I’m so glad.