For Saturday, January 23, 2016:
“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created – nothing.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
It took me a while to get this, but one day as I was watching the birds, it clicked.
As I sit here writing, small songbirds are coming in to partake of the heated water and seeds from the birdfeeder. Just as the chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, wrens, brown creepers, and goldfinches have different habits at the feeder or underneath it – the finches sit on the rim and graze, for instance, while the chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches snatch one seed from the hopper and fly off with it – they also drink from the water bowl in different ways. The goldfinches dip their beaks quickly for what looks like one little drop of water at a time. The titmice sit on the edge of the bowl and they sit, taking long sip after long sip, while the chickadees tend to swoop in, look all around, and then take a single swallow before flying off again.
Those are just a few of the birds. Ground feeders such as mourning doves and juncos have different habits altogether. The various woodpeckers, even within their particular family grouping, large and small, behave differently from each other.
Then, of course, there are the crows and blue jays, both of whom I love to watch because they are so intelligent. There’s the occasional starling or twenty once in a while, too, but the less I say about them the better.
The collective of birds, then, are a type – they all have feathers, two wings and two legs (usually) – but their individualities show up as you watch.
So, if I read Fitzgerald correctly, our characters should start with the individual pieces of the whole. What makes that tall redhead over there different from the tall redhead in the other room? How does one person express her emotions differently from another? Does one character cry easily while another holds it in? Why? How does one neighbor’s habit of shouting out his rage make a difference from the one who suppresses it? Who is patient in the long line she’s standing in and who isn’t? How can the reader tell? How does it make the others in line feel? Is it important to know how fast one of your characters drives? Why?
Meanwhile, back to the birds …
There’s a blue jay with just one leg. What could have happened? How does s/he cope among the others? Is s/he defensive or does s/he hang back? And the beautiful, shy cardinals … you may see them eat from both the ground and feeders, but did you know they share seeds with each other as a token of their affection and fidelity? They and mourning doves tend to be monogamous. Do they grieve if their life partner is taken by a predator? Do they eventually find another partner?
I have no idea if Fitzgerald was a bird watcher or a birder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was. If you think about it, watching birds isn’t that much different from observing the humans, the characters-to-be around us. Sometimes we can even take characteristics from our feathered friends and import them into our human friends on the page. That could make for a fun and interesting exercise, especially if we get stuck.
Will the individuals you work with today, then, be dippers or swallowers? Grazers or snatchers or sharers? Shy or gregarious? One-legged or two? Show us in your words and see if we can guess the type.