Umvelt

I just got through Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz, an unbelievably fascinating and poignant behavioral study of dogs. If you are a dog owner—and recognize the relationship that we have with the dogs who are our companions (and you can’t be the former without being the latter)—then you’ll be spellbound and touched by this book.

Horowitz spends a good chunk of the early part of the book asking the reader to adjust his understanding of a dog’s perspective. We tend to anthropomorphize animals as a way of comprehending them, particularly those with which we are overly familiar. We don’t consider the dogginess of our own dogs. So, Horowitz spends the majority of the book helping us to understand a dog’s umwelt. That is, his subjective or “self-world.”

Here’s the easiest way in: people experience the world, primarily and most importantly, visually. We attach meaning to things by what we see of them and then react accordingly. Dogs experience the world, primarily and strongly, through the nose. Scent is more important than any other sense in the way they read meaning—including but not limited to familiarity, time, emotion—into the things around them. Including us.

My wife came home from walking our dogs this morning—we’d been talking about a lot of Horowitz’s salient points as I encountered them in the book—with a story of a woman who greeting our dogs on the sidewalk with typical coos and tuts. (Our dogs are both under 15 pounds; the smaller is an eight pound rat terrier). When Jimi, the smaller dog, responded by hurrying closer to the woman—to sniff deeply, as Horowitz might say—the woman shrieked and shied away. This woman was not, obviously, considering Jimi’s umwelt. Jimi wanted to experience this woman—who was making all of the recognizable noises of a human happy to see her—in the best, strongest way she knew: by smelling. What did the woman, who was clearly afraid of dogs (even a dog she outweighed by, let’s be kind and say 100 pounds) think Jimi’s response would be? A nod of the head and a wave of the paw? No. Dogs don’t do that.

What’s this have to do with writing? Well, in the early going of Horowitz’s book, I sincerely tried to consider my dogs’ umwelts when regarding their (and my) behavior. In doing so, it occurred to me that this is what we try to do, as writers, in creating and writing new characters (or even writing existing ones). The best writing considers the world from the characters’ points of view and feeds them the words to convey their point of view. It seems obvious, but this is really hard to do.

Trying to consider my dogs’ worldviews felt like grasping at something tenuous that was quickly slipping away. My knowledge wasn’t complete—it never would be—and the act of putting myself in their minds and deconstructing their experiences (nevermind reading the codes of their actions) had to happen so quickly that any time I touched it, the experience was fleeting.

Luckily, we have more time with our characters. Still, it’s a difficult task to divorce our own experiences from those of our characters. Even if those characters are, at base, very like us—they have goals, love, eat, sleep (probably)—their (invented) experiences are so different that it is a giant leap for the writer to inhabit them.

I think this is part of the success of the Pixar movies. Maybe it has something to do with the amount of time it takes, technically, to achieve their films, but every character’s worldview is so specifically realized by the time we’re viewing the movie. Consider Toy Story. Each of these characters has a shared experience—living in Andy’s bedroom, being played with—but each responds to the arrival of Buzz Lightyear in a unique way. Or responds to Woody’s apparent betrayal. Or a third example. And we, as an audience, react to the specificity of each character’s reaction. Because the writers of that movie—and I’m hard pressed to think of a Pixar movie wherein this isn’t the case—take us quickly and masterfully inside the umwelten of Woody, Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, and the rest.

There’s no trick to understanding your character’s umwelt. There are helpful steps you might take, including knowing as much about that characters as you can, or creating the experiences that formed him or her, even if those experiences don’t explicitly appear in your text. But, for me, articulating that part of the job of writing has already helped me begin to accomplish it.

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