Cliché or Clichéd?
Heidi Elizabeth Smith
Heidi Elizabeth Smith
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and an author of multiple stories (unpublished and currently in revision)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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
"Talking Animal Stories"
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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?