Animal Characters in Writing

This month is animal month on my blog, and in honor of that, I’m going to focus on getting into the mindset of a non-human character.  These principles can, at least in some respect, be tied to alien or fantastical creatures, but for now we’re going to look at the creatures that share the planet with us.

In writing, animals exist on a sort of continuum from “Real Animal” to “Human,” and deciding where the characters you want to write should exist on that spectrum is a good place to start for your research.  You probably already have an idea on just how human your animals need to be, so I will focus here on ‘next steps’ to add extra flare to animal (and, in some cases, non-human) characters.

Completely Inhuman

AnimalAnimal thoughts are unknowable.  They can’t communicate (in most cases), and even when they do, conversations focus on food and other needs.  Alex the African Grey Parrot remains the only animal to ask an existential question “What color am I?”

Because it’s hard to create characters, either dynamic or static, writing about true animals usually takes either an informative stance or focuses on the relationship of the animal with a human – and almost always through the human’s lens.   Both of these try to be didactic, usually having a conservation message.  Typical popular books about real animals are about soft, fuzzy, or cute animals, and choosing the correct animal is important.

Another strange place to find writing about real animals is children’s books.  Often devoid of a narrative or deeper information, the books are intended to teach a child what kinds of animals there are, what colors they come in, and sometimes the body parts of the animal.  Though lively creatures with voices and forethought are more common in children’s literature, basic information about animals is abundant.

True animals as main characters are difficult to write –  I have tried – since the narrator necessarily can’t be the animal itself.  If the animal cannot communicate, its feelings and needs must be interpreted by the author and presented through the animal’s actions and reactions.  An animal also has very little sense of time, and thus planning or forethought would be missing from their narrative.  An animal’s struggle is far more instantaneous than a human’s, and goals that can span a story are difficult to come by.  After writing a mere short story from the perspective of a real mouse, I also thought that it became dull; there was no development or chance of development of my character, and writing anything longer than what I had would be both difficult and likely unrewarding.

The most interesting true animals in narratives, then, are often secondary characters or characters that have a close human companion.  I think the perfect example of this is Old Yeller (getting out my extremely manly tissue box while I think about it), where the titular dog is a stellar companion to Travis and his family.  Though the dog never has any real goals, Travis’s bildungsroman allows us to see the dog as an important character.  It allows the viewer (or reader – it was a book first, believe it or not) to import human feelings onto an animal.  Out of all the ways to psychologically explore true animals, doing so in relation to humans may be the best method.

Semi-Human

AnimalBy adding even a modicum of planning ability, including the ability to seek a longer goal, animal main characters become much more tenable.  Some famous examples of books in this realm include the unstoppable classic, Watership Down, in which characters that are physically and – in many respects – mentally rabbits are capable of being the subjects of a novel.  These characters have complex stories and emotions, and they are capable of communicating those emotions to an audience.

In Watership Down, which I will probably brag on until the day I die, the rabbits obviously lack an element of logic.  When Blackberry, the smartest of the lot, comes up with the idea of using a raft to get the weaker rabbits across a stream, most of the remaining rabbits are amazed and confused by the magic.  They have the goals of eating, sleeping, and mating like ‘true animals,’ but it is their ability to plan for the long run that makes them excellent characters.

To me, these are the most interesting characters to analyze psychologically.  Because they must necessarily miss some element of human logic lest they become human, a self-consistent story requires the characters to have interesting thoughts.  Richard Adams, in writing Watership Down, did so by studying Ronald Lockley’s Private Life of the Rabbit and incorporating several instinctual features.  Nilanjana Roy in The Wildings included a prey drive and knowledge of cats based on years of living with them.

I suggest researching your animal well before writing this type of story.  Being loyal to the animal’s nature, at least in a ‘truthiness‘ sense rather than a ‘true’ sense, is important to make these books and stories feel right.  As the two examples I mentioned (and will review later this month!) show, these stories can target an adult audience.

Mostly Human

AnimalThese characters act human, have human logic and planning capabilities, and often do things like cook, wear clothes, and have genuine wars (rather than just fights).  Other than their appearance and body parts, such as whiskers, these characters may have some animal traits (like an excellent sense of smell) but are otherwise mistakable for human.  Trading out human characters for animal ones would not necessarily change the course of the story too much.

One of the best examples of this is the Redwall series by Brian Jacques.  In it, animal protagonists and antagonists come together to fight in a D&D-like war.  There is deep folklore passed down among the peoples, and it is often easy to forget that you’re reading about (mostly) mice.  Only when there are multiple species present in the story do you really need to remember that you’re reading about mice.  It’s rarely relevant to consider the animal nature of the characters.

That being said, I don’t think Redwall would have been quite so good if it hadn’t included animal characters.  I don’t think I can put my finger on it, and perhaps it’s just in the way their society developed, but I don’t think the tale would have been as complete in a world populated by humans and orcs, etc.

In this story, research about animals need only be minimal.  Picking and choosing animal traits to examine is fair game.

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