Squawking or talking: How can you use your animal characters?4 min read

by Jun 16, 2017Writing0 comments

We often have animals in our stories, but do they talk or do they bark?  Do we show them simply as the pets and prey of our human characters?  Or do we show their thoughts to the readers or other characters?  What happens when we base our whole story from their viewpoint?

The first option is the simplest in terms of construction (not necessarily simple to write though, please don’t think I’m quashing the excellent work you are doing on Fido the family dog).  It’s simplest because it is mostly based on research and experience.  We’ve done that before as writers, and we can do it again. You can find out about the behaviours of particular species and breeds by talking to owners and reading up on the subject.  If your animal characters are going to behave like ordinary animals in an ordinary world, the boundaries of their actions are there and you can follow them.

The other two options need more thought.

If you’re going to have an animal character in your story with a bit more *pizzazz* then you need to set the boundaries for yourself.  Because, it turns out, there are just so many ways to write an animal character.  From Gaspode the Wonder Dog, to the lions in Pride of Baghdad, there are so many options for animal sentience…

Pride of Baghdad follows a group of lions who have escaped Baghdad Zoo during the 2003 bombings.  Whilst writer Brian K. Vaughan humanises many of their reactions and emotions, from naivety and cynicism to jealousy and pride, they are essentially still animals in a human world.  They don’t understand what’s going on around them and they can’t communicate in any way with humans. (Although they are in conversation with other species…)

Terry Pratchett’s Gaspode is very different.  He can talk to humans (although they can have some difficulty choosing to hear him), he comprehends their language and actions, and he can make decisions and align himself with certain causes or characters.

So here are some areas to consider when writing your animal characters;

How do you portray your animal character’s thoughts?

  • Do you show what the animal is doing, implying what they think via their actions?
  • Do you just write their thoughts down so the reader can understand (but the other characters can’t)?
  • Does the animal just talk directly to the other characters and have a two-way conversation?

How does your animal character comprehend the action?

  • Does it think like an animal and not understand other species’ actions or plots?
  • Does it think like a human and understand impact of certain actions?
  • Can it understand certain things and not others? If so, why?
  • Does it comprehend things in completely different ways? What impact does this have?

The last point can be the most entertaining…  I’ve read a couple of books where the POV is an animal trying to comprehend human actions and interactions.  It comedic and surreal.  How does a cat comprehend shoes?  How does a giraffe view shrugging?  What situation is your tapir in that means she needs to understand the zebra crossing system?

Are you getting the most out of your animal characters?

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