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.
That’s the tick’s self-world.
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.
“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.
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.