Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Thing about Going to the Local Zoo

The thing about going to the local zoo is that, after you've been there a few times and gotten to know all the animals, you end up spending more time watching the other zoo-goers than the ostensible main attractions of the place.

Yesterday, I went to the Indianapolis zoo to get a look at the new orangutan habitat and because I needed the exercise. I've been to that zoo dozens of times — every year, my parents renew our zoo membership as a Christmas present. I spent maybe twenty minutes trying to glimpse a furry orangutan scalp or a black orangutan knuckle over and around the heads of the hundreds of children and their grandparents in the new orangutan building, and then I was finished with the new stuff.

So I walked around and saw what there was to see. It was familiar territory. The most adorable animal by far in the place — the red panda — was lounging in the fork of a familiar tree just being his adorable self, as usual. I moved along.

A tiger was circling his enclosure, as usual, and occasionally glancing up through the glass at what must have looked like some pretty appetizing young humans. I moved along again.

The bears were out and performing for their audience in their way. Really, they were watching all the people who were watching them back. It was a little eery, but nothing I hadn't seen before. So I turned around, ready to move along, when I spotted something I had never seen before.
Orangutan in Aalborg Zoo, Denmark EspaƱol: Ora...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was about six feet tall, had long brown hair, and wore a wide leather belt through the loops of his pressed, dark blue jeans.  It wore a puffy shirt, the kind that might be worn by someone dressed as a pirate for a Halloween party, but it was dark purple instead of the usual white. Also, in a display that was certainly meant to attract females, the shirt was open almost to its navel, exposing short, curly salt-and-peppers on a well-tanned chest.

It looked like a 1970s disco pirate on safari.

I know it's wrong of me to judge a person by his appearance, and I'm doing my best not to judge. But I did notice him, which I think was what he was going for in the first place.

I see a person dressed like that — or in various other extreme get-ups — and I see someone wearing a costume, not just clothes. I see someone who came out of the shower in the morning wrapping a towel around his waist and thinking, 'Who (or what) should I dress like today?'

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the best time of this guy's life was when he was the backup keyboardist for The Moody Blues, and he has decided to live only in that era of his life forevermore. Maybe he really was an old-fashioned over-flaired pirate who was only at the zoo to pick out a new parrot to sit on his shoulder. Maybe his wife gets turned on by his chest hair.

I don't know, and that's the problem.

It's not a problem for me as a person — people do plenty of "weird" things for reasons I don't understand — but it's a problem for me as a writer. I find extroverted characters the most difficult ones to write because I have a really difficult time understanding what motivates them. So creating a realistic extroverted character is a challenge.

I understand the motivation to be different, to be original. Even introverts have that motivation not to simply be pulled along by the whims of pop culture. But I have been unable to get into the head of the type of person who starts his day trying to figure out how to be noticed by perfect strangers. What kind of emotional rewards come from strangers stealing glances, stodgy old men making faces, and children outright staring?

To me, as an introvert, this type of extroversion sounds like a psychological problem.

But yes, I am aware that, to an extrovert, introversion might also seem like a psychological problem. (For some of us, it probably is, too.)

What all this really means, though, is that I need to make an effort to start writing more extroverted, flamboyant* characters. I need to create characters who like to be the center of attention. Characters who are more outgoing than I am. More shameless. Less reserved. I need to create these characters and have them act the way they act and then figure out why they act that way.

Any knowledge I glean will help me become not only a better writer but a better human being.

I first spotted my disco pirate as he was passing the enclosure of the bald eagle, perhaps the most distinguished and distinguishable of all the birds of prey. A bald eagle can't change out of his unmistakable white head. He simply can't help the way he looks.

Maybe Mr. Disco Pirate can't help it either.

Maybe none of us can.

In the meantime, though, help me understand, from a writer's perspective, what extroversion can look like in literature. What novels feature well-written, understandable extroverts?

* I am aware that extroversion and flamboyance are two different things. Please don't castigate me in the comments for saying that they're synonymous. I know they're not. The most extreme personalities are the most difficult for me to understand, though; why start small?