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Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision

Felines in Fantasy:
Cliché or Clichéd?

By Heidi Elizabeth Smith

© 2002, Heidi Elizabeth Smith

I recently learned that many speculative fiction readers consider feline--and animal, in general--characters to be clichéd, to the point where magazines state in their guidelines, "No Cat Stories." As an unabashed cat-lover and an author of multiple stories (unpublished and currently in revision) featuring feline or felinoid main characters, I was surprised and, to tell the truth, a little shocked. Fantasy novels about felines, such as Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams, have been among my favorites.

I decided to do a little analytical research on my own work, and the works of others, in the hopes of figuring out just where that mind-set, for lack of a better word, comes from. I went into my local Barnes and Noble and noticed the amount of feline-related novels or serials on their shelves, including the Catfantastic and Man-Kzin Wars anthologies, Lisanne Norman's Sholan Alliance novels, Gabriel King's Wild Road duology, Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams, and others. Now, these books, especially the anthologies, have proven popular with readers, or they wouldn't continue to be published. So why do so many people consider them clichéd?

Most novels in the anthropomorphic sub-genre (hereafter referred to as "anthro") share common characteristics that may be mistaken for clichés. The biggest problems people seem to have with feline characters are: 

Felinoid species

This is mainly seen in science fiction; although I'm sure it's been done in fantasy, I'm drawing a blank on when, where, or by whom. How many novels or stories with intergalactic empires have a felinoid race somewhere? They had 'em in Star Trek, they had 'em in the Man-Kzin Wars, and they had 'em in a whole lot of other places. The problem is that too many people see fit only to create a race of "felinoids" that are bipedal and furry, but act just like humans, or, on the other end of the scale, just like cats.

If you're doing an alien race, make it alien. Just because they look like our cats, it doesn't mean that they have to act like them. Maybe a felinoid race would love water, or be vegetarian? Only a few people, including Lisanne Norman and Larry Niven, have done felinoid races right, in my opinion--and memorably enough that I still remember and reread them.

The Kitty Quest 

I couldn't resist the subtitle. Look at the novels with pure felines as the main characters. I'll use Tailchaser's Song and The Wild Road as examples here. Both contain humans to a certain extent, but they are predominantly quest novels where a group of feline characters basically set out on a Grand Adventure to beat the kitty version of the infamous Dark Lord. They're epic fantasy novels with cats instead of humans. 

Anthropomorphization: "Talking Animal Stories" 

Probably the most common problem with animals in fiction is that they act no different than humans. How many books with animal characters, especially in children's literature, act exactly like humans? Also, how many children (read-in: future writers) are exposed to anthropomorphic animals through pop culture and the media? Disney is a good example of this. When I started writing, many years ago, my first stories were about sentient felines that were completely anthropomorphized; they lived on Earth, had jobs, drove cars, and went to fairs complete with Ferris Wheels --nearly identical to the characters and world of Disney cartoon shows and movies (such as Mickey Mouse) that have proven extremely popular among children.

However, some novels feature the animal characters as exaggerated humans for satire purposes; Orwell's novel Animal Farm is a good example of this. But these are the exceptions in anthro fiction -- not the rule.

It's difficult to write about animals without making them somewhat like humans; otherwise, there would be no way to relate to them. But not many people seem to try to make their characters like true animals. I have read many stories and novels in which the animal characters might as well be human because of their behavior and mannerisms. Look at Brian Jacques's extremely successful Redwall novels. You could easily replace the animal characters with humans, and it wouldn't be any different. But the worst part of the anthropomorphization cliché is that many people equate sentient animals with "cutesy critters." The last thing most people want to read is a story that's a fluffed-up children's story marketed as fantasy. 

Another fact is that "talking" or telepathic animals are pretty damn common in fantasy. Let's see ... Mercedes Lackey has them, Mickey Zucher Reichert does, Tanya Huff, Tara K. Harper, and Gayle Greeno do, as well. This is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of what's on my bookshelf, and by no means is a comprehensive list. Animals are so commonplace in fantasy, and so many of them do absolutely nothing to advance the plot, that some people think of them as clichéd.

I, however, don't believe that's true. But fewer and fewer editors buy animal stories now; in fact, I can't think of any that have come out within the past year. 

So what does this mean for you, the hopeful anthro fiction writer? No, don't give up. Even if talking animals or felinoid characters are considered clichéd, a really good story can make someone change their mind. Rather than following the cliché and writing a Kitty Quest story filled with Anthropomorphic Kitty Characters, try something different. Develop a culture for your animals. Make them different from humans. And answer some questions. Why are your animals sentient? What makes them different from ours? Evolution? Magic? Or are they the descendants of a genetic-engineering project gone horribly wrong (for humans, at least)? Write down everything you come up with; most of it will come in handy later on, even if you never include it in the story itself.

Also, animals, even sentient ones, are not going to think or act like humans. They may act similar, to a certain extent, but never exactly alike. All carnivorous animals--and that includes felines--love to hunt. I rarely see hunt scenes in novels. Maybe that's due to the author's squeamishness or political correctness, but it makes it difficult for me to believe in the story. After all, anyone who's had an outdoor cat knows just how much they love to present their still-bleeding kills to their Person. Why don't kittens in books give their catches to their parents, or older cats to their lovers?

See what I'm getting at? You don't have to do your story/novel exactly the same way everyone else has. In fact, that'll actually work against you in the future. Do your story differently. I wished I'd started out that way; after writing three drafts of the first book in a trilogy, I realized that my characters were shallow and my animal culture was contemporary American with a (very) thin feline veneer. After months, with a good friend's help, my felines' culture developed, and the story that popped up along with it quickly outgrew my original characters and storyline. I had to scrap whole portions of the story and cut out entire characters, including the main character. The story has changed its course so drastically that I'm still not quite sure where it's going. By taking the easy way out and mimicking human society and characteristics, I wasted a lot of time that could have been spent much more productively.

On the other hand, what if you like the "cliché?" What if you like Kitty Quests and Felinoid Species? What if you want to write your own? That still doesn't mean you have to stick to what's already been done. Bend the rules, break the clichés in half, and superglue 'em back together. Change things around and make them your own. Clichés are only clichés when they've been done so many times that the reader knows exactly what's going to happen--so throw a wrench or two into the works. Plot twists are great for refreshing clichés. As soon as things are going too smoothly, let the most unexpected (but believable) thing happen. S. L. Viehl's StarDoc novels are literally the best examples of plot twisting that I have ever seen. Although her main character is not a sentient feline (but she does have a felinoid character and a cat that "talks," so I feel justified in mentioning the novels here), they are well worth reading both for enjoyment and for "education.

So break out your pen and paper (or keyboard) and get to work. If you don't write them, how else am I going to read more anthropomorphic  stories?