Writing Animals

Portraying animal characters sounds simple enough, but there is a lot more to consider than some writers realise.

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© 2015 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

People love animals. People love animals more than they love other people; believe me, I’ve checked.

I’m not going to tell you what an animal is as that would be redundant, but what I am going to tell you is that just because you have cats, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to write about feline characters. In fact, there are a lot of things to think about when writing about animals, and sometimes writers just seem to underestimate them—or overestimate.

The miscalculation of writing animals can be as simple as accidentally writing them for the wrong audience. Animals in the correct genre, written for the right age group are often easier to characterise and hopefully help writers pinpoint an animal’s agenda in each scene. Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy is a raccoon, but does he act like one? No, he just looks like one, but he has an agenda, for example.

Agenda? Yes, in writing, animals have agendas, much like the ones they have in real life. It isn’t that much different to writing human characters. Describing what animals look like isn’t the main issue that writers face when trying to portray our animal companions (or antagonists). It is how they think and feel. In a romantic, the animals may be clumsy, but it would be unreal to portray them as wilfully wanting the protagonist and the love interest together. Sorry, but that’s not quite how animals work. They may show behaviours that the protagonist can project their own feelings onto (you know, those one way conversations that characters seem to have with their dogs). They may simply want feeding or are feeling particularly affectionate.

As much as you love your characters, in the real world your dogs don’t care if you get laid. So, unless you’ve established animals being puppets of destiny, I’d personally stick to the projected feelings idea.

In fantasy and sci-fi however, animals are free to have sentience and perfect speaking skills. Their agendas can be adapted to suit the plot, and then the writer simply needs to make sure these and physical appearances are consistent—I often forget how big a tiger is, for example, and sometimes I have read dragons that seem to change their size more often than I change clothes.

For fantasy and sci-fi writers, writing animals that aren’t traditional creatures—mythological or handmade by the writer themselves—can be particularly tricky. We often want to make them more than what they are; god-like to the point where their animal characteristics are overridden by human behaviours and mannerisms. This may be what you want, but then to that I say, “Why not simply write a humanoid or human character for this part?” Think about why they need to be this creature you have chosen to write and see where you end up. I’m not saying it is bad to have animals like this in fantasy, just that in the writing medium one can forget that the protagonist is talking to a flapping phoenix if their flames, feathers or talons aren’t remarked upon.

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So, getting back to the animals we all know and love. Say we’re writing a scene that includes a monkey. It will aid your protagonist in his or her story—but why? Is it sentient? To what degree? If it can talk, how does it talk? If it speaks English… why? (This doesn’t necessarily have to be answered in the text, I have just always asked why everyone and their mum speaks English in fiction.) Is it an accident due to the monkey’s curious nature? Maybe it threw dung at the love interest and now is a good character building moment?

Using the correct terminology is also a great way to help suspend readers in the realms of make believe. Most writers who create stories of horses tend to be equine enthusiasts, but there have been a few times when I have had to write a scene with a horse in it and regularly I had to look up what a ‘rump’ is, which is faster than a canter or a gallop.

Animals are all around us, and they have ways of just… popping up. I guess my best advice for writing animals is making sure they are consistent with the animals we know. If you’re creating animals for your story, you need to be able to picture them clearly in your mind; how they move, how they interact with humans (if they need to), and whether they are sentient or not. Some dragons in literature are simply giant fire-breathing lizards, and others have the ability to form telepathic connections with people they like. In Japanese myths, dragons can be like benevolent natural phenomena that fly in like deus ex machina, and other times they purposely gift people with their good will.

Sometimes writing advice can feel like you’re getting a whole bunch of ‘well, duh’ thrown at you, but this is all information that I regularly have to remind myself when I’m writing stories which involve animals. I also have to remind myself of this information when I am writing human characters (“What do they want?” mostly). Different writers work differently, but I do recommend taking notes if your animal is to play a prominent role in your story, possibly even writing character sheets. Is your dog sentient or just loyal and well trained? If they are sentient, what do they like doing?

It can be that simple and that hard.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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1 Comment

  • Sam Kaye says:

    I am fascinated by animals. I find myself watching the advanced behaviours portrayed on wildlife programs and wonder ‘how do they know that?’
    This article has inspired me to expand on animal behaviour a novel I am writing. In it, a cat named Tiddles makes a few appearances (based on my own little feline friend). I made a point of referring to the cat as a ‘bit of an asshole’..Your article is making think about all of the reasons that I came to that conclusion and I think I could expand on it!

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