Casting (or Molding) Your Characters

Writing is a process, and if you do it long enough, you produce. But knowing that the “process” part of that simple equation requires constant tuning – whether through expert feedback, writing exercises, editing, or other standard tools of the trade – it also means having to climb out of ruts and onto the high ground above the ruts, looking down, and saying, “Wow, those sure are deep ruts.” Then sometimes you jump back in, because it may be a rut, but it’s the rut you know and love. However, in other instances, you gain a new perspective and become aware of some new dimension that could be added to your writing that takes it in a slightly different direction: a side trail off the main one where you left your mark, so to speak.

Raccoon-Trail-Scat-Writing-MetaphorHere’s an ichnological metaphor, depicting what can happen with your writing. This is a raccoon trail cutting through a high marsh on Wassaw Island, Georgia. See those other trails branching away from the main one in the background? Do you also notice how the main trail has a pile of raccoon crap lying on it (lower right)? I know: it writes itself, doesn’t it?

This happened to me a little over two weeks ago when I signed up for and attended a science-writing workshop held just before the start of the AJC-Decatur Book Festival in Decatur, Georgia (which I wrote about here). Titled Science Storytelling: Writing for a Chemical Reaction, and taught by local science writer and reporter Sonya Collins, it was a real writing workshop, one in which its participants actually wrote. (I’ve heard anecdotes from other writers about “workshops” that mostly consist of the authors/workshop organizers talking authoritatively about their own writing and generally promoting themselves to a captive audience, where the only work is enduring excessive self-aggrandizing. No thanks.) It was a fine, concise, and imminently practical two-hour workshop on science writing, and if offered again, I urge anyone in the Atlanta area who is interested to take it.

Why did I feel the need to attend  a science-writing workshop when I’m already writing about science, and doing a lot of it? For example, earlier that week I had just finished and sent the first draft of a book manuscript, Dinosaurs Without Bones, and was feeling pretty darned good about having completed that major writing goal. Moreover, I was also being recognized as an author at the book festival, and in my own home town of Decatur. In one instance, I was given the honor of introducing fellow paleontologist-author Brian Switek (who gave a expertly delivered and enthused talk about his most recent book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, to an appreciative crowd co-sponsored by the Atlanta Science Tavern) and in another I talked with an audience about my most recent book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. I was on a science-author role, and instead of attending a workshop, I should have just been sitting back with my favorite adult beverage and toasting my greatness, entertaining thoughts of creating my own science-writing workshops in which I would talk to aspiring science authors about my favorite subject: you know, me.

Yet I still sometimes suffer from “imposter syndrome,” feeling like a fraud. Much of this insecurity stems from how much of what I know about science writing is intuitive, garnered largely through having written much of my life, but also through seeking out and reading good science writing. Otherwise, although I’ve had plenty of training in and practice with technical writing, I’ve had very little formal instruction and guidance in writing about science for a popular audience. Hence it was time for a reality check, and to see whether what I was doing was OK (jump back into that rut!) or whether I needed to tweak my writing in some way (make a new path out of the rut!). In other words, I still have a helluva lot to learn about science writing.

So how did it go? In short, I learned lots, but here was the one key insight I took away from the workshop: character development. I had not fully appreciated how science storytelling, like all other storytelling, requires an interesting cast of characters. But this presents a challenge; after all, one of my most frequent answers I give to people who ask if I ever write about human traces and behavior is the Ace Ventura line, “I don’t do humans!”

After all, I mostly write about non-human characters – animals and plants – and their tracks, burrows, nests, droppings, and other traces. How could those be characters, infused with their own personalities and figure into plots filled with conflict, drama, love, hilarity, tension, and resolution?

That’s when it hit me that the Georgia barrier islands host a proverbial cast of thousands worthy of an epic tragicomedy straight out of a Flannery O’Connor tale or a Coen brothers’ film. For example, look at the following common names of these plants and imagine them as characters – heroes, villains, lovers, siblings, and innocent (or not-so-innocent) bystanders – in a Southern Gothic story. Go ahead, anthropomorphize to your heart’s content, and read them aloud if so inclined:

  • Loblolly Pine
  • Yaupon Holly
  • Resurrection Fern
  • Smooth Cordgrass
  • Sea-oxeye Daisy
  • Bitter Panic Grass
  • Red Cedar
  • Black Needle Rush
  • Glasswort
  • Fiddle-leaf Morning Glory

And now for some of the inveterate, I mean, invertebrate characters:

  • Live-oak Stump Borer
  • Acrobat Ant
  • Bald-faced Hornet
  • Periodical Cicada
  • Cicada killer
  • Florida Harvester Ant
  • Mole crayfish
  • Southern Devil Scorpion
  • Southern Carpenter Bee
  • Fallen Angelwing
  • Silky Ribbon Worm
  • Thick-lipped Oyster Drill
  • Blood Brittle Star
  • Wood Gribble
  • Moon Snail
  • Ghost Crab
  • Hairy Hermit Crab
  • Sea Onion Anemone
  • Trumpet Worm
  • Baby’s Ear
  • Stout Razor Clam
  • Lightning whelk

Need some backbone to your story? How about these:

  • Congo Eel
  • Southern Short-tailed Shrew
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Spadefoot Toad
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Tarpon Snook
  • Six-lined Racer
  • Nine-banded Armadillo
  • Chicken Turtle
  • Mottled Mojarra
  • Warmouth
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Wild Turkey
  • Bank Swallow
  • Northern Fence Lizard
  • Peninsular Ribbon Snake
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Sandbar Shark
  • Star-nosed Mole
  • Southern Stingray
  • Laughing Gull
  • Short-billed Dowitcher
  • Yellow-crowned Night Heron
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Marbled godwit

When you read such names, don’t you wonder a little bit about them, their secret lives, how they relate to one another, and how their pasts will collide in an uncertain future? And even if you’re a cool-headed, mechanistic materialist who only views animals and plants as vehicles for propagating genes, you might at least inquire about the varied behaviors of these living beings and what marks they leave on the world as a result. Either way, if you are curious, then I guess you’ll have to read my book. (Incidentally, an excerpt from the first chapter is free here, and introduces one of the previously mentioned characters, who becomes the prime suspect in a murder-mystery.)

Like any good scientist, I had to experiment with this possible creative breakthrough. As a result, I read an abbreviated list of these characters in my presentation about Life Traces of the Georgia Coast at the AJC-Decatur Book Fesitval, and as far as I could tell, the audience reaction varied from mildly amused to confused. Still, it was well worth getting off an established trail and trying something new, and gave me a new question to ask when doing any future science writing: who are the subjects of my stories, and why should other people find them interesting? So be looking for some of them in upcoming stories about the life traces of the Georgia coast and the characters who make them.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Sonya Collins for putting together such a fulfilling and affirming science-writing workshop; to the AJC-Decatur Book Festival for arranging and encouraging such workshops; to the Atlanta Science Tavern for their continued support of science authors and writing; Brian Switek for lucidly and honestly discussing science writing with me during his too-short visit to my home town; and to my wife Ruth Schowalter, who puts up with the character who is me, writing about science.)

4 thoughts on “Casting (or Molding) Your Characters

  1. Fabulous work Tony! I generally subdue my anthropomorphic thoughts regarding the continual cast of characters who surround me at work. Ruth, and you are encouraging me to bring those thoughts forward and let them run out my fingers…..Thank You

    • Thank you for that positive feedback, Jenifer! Yes, please let those thoughts flow creatively into your fingertips, whether they touch pencils, pens, keyboards, or iPads. I very much look forward to seeing how Georgia-coast animals inspire you and Ruth to conjure up fanciful visions of them in the next few months.

  2. I once was a consistent, handicapped 140 bowler.
    I took lessons.
    I now can no longer bowl.
    Reading that YOU, of all people, have been to a writing workshop is akin to hearing that Neal Peart of RUSH had taken drum lessons.
    Don’t let it screw your style up!

    • Lewis, many thanks for the compliments, and advice taken, especially as a great admirer of Neal Peart’s drumming prowess since the 1980s (saw Rush live twice in concert then). But I also have a photo of a sign on my office door quoting Michelangelo: “I am still learning.” So whenever I recognize something that helps me to improve as a writer, but doesn’t compromise on my “voice” as one, then I’ll take it.

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