Let Your Characters Walk Like The Animals…by Jackie Blain
Join me as we welcome back columnist Jackie Blain as she shares with us “Let Your Characters Walk Like The Animals…” Enjoy!
A student came into the Writing Center where I tutor the other day with a complaint about his instructor (big surprise!). The student had been using his thesaurus to come up with another word for ‘people’ to go with ‘the Chinese’ and ended up with ‘civilians.’ His instructor told him that was wrong, and he was both annoyed and confused. I had to explain about connotations, the subtle meanings we apply to words that have almost identical dictionary definitions, and how hard it is to use the freaking thesaurus well. He ended up deleting ‘people’ and simply using ‘the Chinese’ – a fine compromise.
It got me thinking about how hard writers have struggled to find words to replace ‘said’ over the decades. Fortunately, we no longer live in a world where “Charles opined” is considered a good substitute.
Heck, even “She said” isn’t even all that common anymore!
But what about the words we use for ‘walk’ – for moving through space? Aside from ‘walk’ and ‘run,’ what can you use? And why would you?
Here’s a simple exercise, not to be taken too seriously, that will get you thinking about motion in a whole new way.
- Quickly list ten animals. Any ten animals. Ones that walk, swim, fly…
- Consider how each one moves through its world. Maybe a bear lumbers through the forest. Or an eagle floats on a thermal. Write that word down. Check a thesaurus if you want some ideas, or watch a YouTube video of that animal in action.
- Now spin all the connotations you can for that word – what image or feeling do you get from the word? A bear lumbering through the forest gives me an image of something slow and large, powerful but not necessarily graceful, a being that’s kind of funny when it moves but with a subtext of strength and potential violence.
- Finally, take your characters and see if you can use an animal motion to describe their walk… and if it’s something you can use to give us a picture of, or feeling for, them in general. A king could, for example, lumber through a castle, which gives me a picture of a man secure in his own power who simply keeps on going, even if he might seem slightly ridiculous to other people. Or a child flits bee-like through her day, never staying in one spot, or with one idea, very long.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need to use those specific words in your story, but you certainly can. And at least they’ll give you a different perspective on describing that person both outside and in.
What ‘walk’ word would you use to describe how your main character moves through his/her world? What insight does it give you about their character?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jackie Blain is a writer, screenwriter, writing teacher and member of the Writers Guild of America who works with dedicated screenwriters and filmmakers to make their work the best it can be… and remember that they got into this writing thing because of passion and fun. She lives in Brooklyn NY with two cats who, she suspects, hate the heat and wish they were still in Oregon. More about Jackie Blain’s courses, consultations, and evaluation services for screenwriters and filmmakers here.