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Animal protagonists have been around in writing for a long time, and approached from as many angles as their human counterparts. From the gritty realism of Jack London to the high fantasy of Kathryn Lasky to the family drama of Bruce Cameron, animal fiction isn’t just for children. When done well, it can give readers a new way to look at the world and makes for enchanting story telling.
Unfortunately, it is very easy to get it wrong. As with any other sort of fiction, a lack of research will kill you every time. People are more likely to read about animals they like and already know a lot about, so getting basic facts about a species wrong is often enough to turn readers off. Whenever you have a fox curl its lips back in a savage snarl (something they lack the muscle structure to do) or have a lion give a low, rumbling purr (something they lack the throat structure to do), somewhere out there a reader is rolling their eyes at you.
For example, in a book I recently picked up, the author treated three grey foxes as being a credible physical threat to a pack of a half-dozen large breed dogs. This is something like trying to portray three unarmed middleschoolers as being able to inflict grievous physical wounds on a troop of adult gorillas. Even a small amount of research would have revealed that grey foxes are the size of a cat, with mouths and teeth more suited to crunching mice and beetles than to fighting canids ten times their size. The end result was a scene that came across as extremely silly instead of heart-pounding.
So research, research, research! The key to writing fascinating, engaging animal characters lies in learning everything you can about the species you’re writing for. Any story focused on an animal is already asking a lot of the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, so don’t stretch that further by getting things wrong that you could just as easily get right. Know their biology, social behavior, natural habitats, etc. Become an expert on the animal, so that when you write you can slip into its point of view like a separate skin.
A more insidious trap a lot of authors new to animal fiction fall into is writing “humans in fur”. These characters are animal in shape only—their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors are undeniably human. The author knows the animal’s physical biology down to the tendon, but at its heart the character is just a human crammed into a new skin. Sometimes this can be pulled off (Kathryn Lasky does it beautifully in her Guardians of Ga’hoole series), but it more often leads to a story that rings somehow false. However, there are simple ways to avoid falling into this trap.
How Does The Animal Sense The World?
Take into consideration how the animal detects and interacts with the world around it. Cats are primarily visual hunters, but with eyes more suited to darkness. Dogs and wolves live by their noses. Foxes, bats, and owls all depend on sound to find their prey. Fish sense movement through their lateral lines. Using the way the protagonist senses the world can breathe unique life into an otherwise very human character.
For an excellent example of this concept, see the Silverwing series by Kenneth Oppel. Although he does use visual descriptions (bats aren’t actually blind), they are limited to what a bat would actually be able to see. His North American bat protagonists, like their real-world counterparts, cannot see in color. In the entire course of the series, he does not use a single color to describe the world around them. However, the setting is no less vivid for it--he paints their world with a rich tapestry of sonar and the feel of the wind on their wings. It wasn’t until someone pointed out to me that I saw he never used a color descriptor—the world was so alive that I didn’t miss it.
What Would Its Culture Be?
Imagine a human culture that based itself off of your chosen species. Pretend you are an anthropologist documenting this new tribe for the first time so it can be explained to the rest of the world. What sort of social structure do they have? Are they monogamous? Polygamous? Who raises the young? Who makes the important decisions and why? How is status determined? In lean times, who gets fed first? Once you’ve converted your animal’s natural behavior into a human culture, take it a step further. What written laws would guide this behavior? What happens to those who break the law? What gods would they believe in? What moral code do they have? What is the highest honor? What is the greatest disgrace?
Now that you have this amazing culture, turn them back into animals. Now you not only have their unique physiology and way of sensing the world, but you also have a unique worldview to go with it. Two books that exemplify this are Watership Down by Richard Adams, and Firebringer by David Clement-Davies. The animal-cultures within them are fully developed, and very believable because of how strongly rooted they are in the natural behaviors of rabbits and red deer, respectively. Not only that, both books take it a step further by exploring what happens when this natural culture is subverted or breaks down.
If you haven’t before, why not give some animal fiction a try? Pick your favorite animal, do some reading, and see what stories come to mind.
CC-member Ragtatter has a blog at www.thepetfox.net