Monday, January 14, 2013

Hey, Baby, What's Your Animal?

Hey, baby, what’s your animal?

Not, I imagine, the zinger to supplant that hoary old pick up line about signs, but totem animals have been on my mind lately and even better, I figured out a way to incorporate this preoccupation into my writing process. Hooray!

Otter love this baby, she's so cute
Otter has been my curious, bright-eyed companion since I was a teen. We both like the water, we love to play. “A little quirky and unorthodox” with an “unusual way of looking at things” and a “brilliant imagination,” what’s not to admire and emulate about my furry pal?

And really, SHE didn’t think she needed a companion on ye olde totem pole. But on New Year’s, my family and I were at the diner for breakfast, storing up the calories for the long journey called 2013 we’d begun that day. Mom was talking about her totem animals. Jeri was talking about hers. And I realized, hey. You two have THREE animals and I only have one?

Not. Fair. Foot stomp. Pout.

“Well,” I was asked with patient forbearance, “Do you have an animal in mind?”

“Yes.” I blurted. “The camel.”
Camel tea pot

Uh, camel? Where the heck did that come from? Dunno, except that I’ve collected camel objects here and there for a few years now. Their funky looks appeal to me.

Quickly, Jeri did a search and came up with a list of characteristics that made this claim of mine seem not so very random. In addition to being great at conservation (see caloric breakfast above), adaptive to their environment, and filled with stamina, camels are “designed to take on the challenges of long-distance journeying over harsh terrain.”

Excuse me, but does that not sound like the kind of spirit guide every writer needs? Lost in the harsh landscape of her manuscript’s barren desert of a middle act, a writer could do worse than to rely on the intrepid dromedary.

All this got me thinking about my characters. Mostly, my heroes are werewolves. Wolves are “the lover of the zodiac” and they’re “fully capable of providing” that love. 

Can I get an amen on that? 

They’re also fiercely independent, loyal, affectionate, and obsessive. Joe is obsessed with making sure Della eats properly. Marco loves his grandmother so much, he’s planning to take a long walk off a short pier rather than subject her to his unstable wolf side. Ky is a super-soldier “fully capable” of ending Jilly’s long sexual drought (though maybe she should look for a camel shifter instead? Or, uh, maybe not.).

A favorite childhood tale
My heroines are not werewolves and so don’t come with a handy pre-set list of characteristics I can draw upon, alas.  Della would make a damn fine wolf, but I’m more inclined to think of her as a hedgehog: spiky on the outside, tender on the underbelly. She can take care of herself. She’s so used to going it alone, she bristles at the thought she might need a helping hand.  Yet she’s perceptive and resourceful and willing to do what must be done to protect those in her care. Even if it means accepting help from a wise-cracking wolf who tries to feed her green things all the time.

What, you've never heard of a
Christmas angel cat?

Krissie’s totem is a domestic cat. She intuitive, clever and just a wee bit mysterious (well, after all, she is a high-ranking elf in Santa’s top-secret special delivery squad. Keeping her own counsel is crucial to conducting a successful Operation Christmas each year).  Cats are a harbinger of change, and Krissie sure alters the trajectory Marco has planned for his last night of life.

I’m not sure about Jilly’s totem yet. She’s overworked, under pressure and it’s been Way Too Long since she’s had sex. She’s got a strong vision for how her life should play out. It’s just not the right vision (and Ky plans to show her why in the near future). But all that sounds depressingly human. Maybe once she and Ky shed a few clothes, Jilly will shed a few layers and give me a better understanding of what makes her tick. We’ll see!

My research for totem characteristics comes from this terrific website:

Do you have a totem animal or two or three? How about your characters? 


  1. I've always loved, loved, loved this topic, Keely! Animal symbology has been with us homo sapiens since we told our first stories to each other. I even took a long look at the topic in my master's thesis, published last spring.

    Thinking about it can really help writers get a grip on their characters' personalities, behavior--and even their looks. I often have a particular animal on my mind when I'm getting a grip on a character. I'm excited to see I'm not the only one!

  2. I confess I've never even looked at this aspect of characterization before, although you can bet I will now! :-) Thanks Keely for the fun and helpful post!

  3. Ohh, I always loved the What Animal Would You Be? questions round the campfire... of course, being with a group of Girl Scouts, there's be the dolphin and the cat and at least one would have to say snake/frog/centipede just to get a reaction from the group.
    I always loved the eagle and its far-seeing abilities (being able to see and understand the big picture seems a good thing for a writer)
    But it is interesting to think of our characters in those terms, too.

  4. If I were picking a personal totem, I'd pick the lion, the falcon, and the dragon as my animal totems. All three deal with strength, power, and focus in some fashion, while the dragon and the lion both encourage balance. The added benefit of the falcon is that it calls us to strategize if we have goals.

    Love the post, Keely. What a fun way to think about personal & spiritual growth for ourselves and for characterization for our fictional characters. Animal totems are awesome!

  5. Jaguar and wolves. I had dreams for years about being with and in my human form running with --NOT away from--- jaguars and wolves. Somewhere around my messy house I have a mask I made which I later painted with jaguars and some deliciously sexual scarlet flowers.

    That was in my younger years when I ruled the world (in my own mind). Now, I'd have to add an animal not unlike the camel to my list because I exemplify cantankerous perseverance, stealth and strategic spitting, and a punching bag spirit (I may go down, but I'm coming back up). Or I could just say that a 50 year Unsinkable Molly Brown is my third animal. I'll work on that between spitting and persevering.

    Thanks for a great blog!