Sarah Jane Elliott, Associate Editor, Fantasy
Issue # 2: 03/01/01
and Using Language in Fiction
have never thought of myself as a good writer.
Anyone who wants
reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm
one of the world's great rewriters.
- James A Michener
Sarah Jane Elliott
you immerse yourself in a fantasy world, chances are youre going to
come across a talking animal sooner or later.
Theyve been running around fantasyland for a long time now.
is full of them. So is Oz.
Talking animals are a staple of childrens stories, and the fond
memories we get when reading them as children tend to stay with us, which
may be why we love to read about talking dragons, telepathic horses, and
intelligent eagles. But there
is a problem with many of these inhabitants of fantasyland.
Nine times out of ten, they act like people in animal suits.
Not that theres anything particularly abhorrent
about this -- Disney makes a fairly comfortable living off just such
characters -- but too much of this sort of thing and they all run
characters become just another human with some fur or feathers slapped on.
Its easy enough to see where the anthropomorphic
animals came from. Historically,
a talking animal was used most often in literature as a metaphor for some
aspect of humanity. In Aesop,
the hare became pride, the tortoise perseverance, the fox cunning, the
crow intelligence. They acted
like humans because they represented humans.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S.
Lewis created Aslan the lion, one of the most famous anthropomorphic
animals. But Aslan acts very
little like a lion. Lewis
adopted the literary devices of Aesops fables and early fairy tales to
embody aspects of humanity in the Animals of Narnia.
The wolves, only now losing their reputation as wicked, evil
creatures, were the embodiment of savagery and bloodlust, and fell to the
side of evil. The beavers,
industrious and persevering, became the saviours of the human children.
And Aslan himself, a lion, the symbol of strength and royalty,
became a Christ figure. In
the spirit of post-war idealism, Lewis created Aslan to be the epitome of
logic, reason, compassion, and everything that post-war society craved in
mankind. But because Aslan
was a representation of these aspects of humanity, he lost his animal
Modern fantasy writers are faced with a tough
challenge. Obvious allegory, like The Lion, the Witch, and the
Wardrobe, has been done. Todays
readers have seen it, and though we appreciate it, we need something new.
We crave reality.
Think of the alien invasion theme in movies.
In the 50s, movies like Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers
were terrifying, but we arent frightened today. Today we want movies like Independence Day, with
cutting edge effects that make things as real as possible. We dont care as much about films that are metaphors
for the dangers of communism. We
want action, we want great characters to cheer for, and we want it as real
as it can get.
The same is true for novels, which is why the man in
beast's clothing is no longer a useful writer's tool.
It has become cliché. Readers
crave a story in which they can immerse themselves, and real, believable
characters who become our best friends.
A good way to do that is to strip away the humanity and make our
animal characters what they are: animals
who just happen to be able to communicate.
This is a lot harder than it sounds.
You have to keep enough apparent humanity that the reader is still
able to identify with the character, but at the same time immerse yourself
in a totally alien mindset. The
character is not human. Its
responses are not going to be the same as the ones your human character
The easiest way to go about doing this is to take a
good long look at your creatures natural history.
For example, lets take a look at an intelligent species that
youve decided to base on a wolf-type morphology (you can play around
with that to your hearts content, but thats a whole other article).
Well call it a jorveth. This
wolf base can affect almost everything about your jorveth, from his
peoples culture to the gestures we take for granted.
To begin with, your jorveth is going to be a
carnivore. And unlike humans, who started out as scavengers until we had
tools to help us out, hes an active carnivore, with the biological
equipment to back it up. Blood,
death, and hunting are probably going to have a much bigger role in his
culture than in that of your human characters.
Not just in terms of ritual, but in everyday beliefs.
Where a human would consider crying for someone an expression of
grief, a jorveth might think it a much more fitting tribute to shed blood
for a fallen comrade. His
species will probably have more words for these things than humans do (my
griffin have twenty-seven words for blood), and it will figure as a
subject of their art, their literature, and their poetry.
Wolves run in packs with a very structured social
hierarchy, so your jorveths may have something similar.
Instead of monogamous families, you may have households composed of
an alpha pair and assorted beta and gamma males and females.
They may have formed elaborate rituals of greetings.
Their rituals may not even be visual, as ours are -- the primate
brain is unique in that it has a large portion of it devoted to vision and
has very underdeveloped olfactory lobes.
Canine and other mammal brains place a much higher emphasis on
smell and hearing.
But dont just think about culture... think about
the little things. We
all know what it means when someone shrugs, or laughs, or grimaces.
These are little gestures that we take for granted, and they
communicate a lot. Particularly
the obscene ones. (Do you
bite your thumb at us, sir?). But a jorveth cant
shrug, because hes quadrupedal. He
has to keep those feet on the ground.
You have to think of new gestures that convey the same meaning as a
smile, or a thumbs-up, or a blush. So
go back to biology again. Clenched
fists convey aggression in a human, but when a canine is angry, he goes
stiff-legged and raises his hackles.
Humans smile to show that theyre happy, but in canines, a show
of the teeth is a challenge for dominance.
A tail wag conveys the same as a smile.
Learned gestures like shrugs are harder.
You have to think of the ways a canine shows confusion.
Little things like whines, or a flattening of the ears to the sides
of the head. Ear-flattening
in itself can have many different meanings, from happiness to fear,
depending on the placement of the ears.
A jaw snap can convey annoyance.
Averting the eyes can mean embarrassment.
Crouching low to the ground indicates submission or shame.
There is a wealth of ideas for the taking -- there are a lot of
animals that do a lot of neat things out there.
Anthropomorphic animals have been thoroughly
sterilized, humanized, and sanitized for the purposed of conveying
allegory. Its about
time we let them return to their roots.
An animal character can still convey a metaphorical meaning, but
theres no reason why he cant be interesting at the same time.
Defy the conventions, skip the sanitization, and set the beast