Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Animals as Fiction Characters

I love animals. I was a quirky and somewhat introverted kid, and I took a great deal of comfort from my relationships with my family's companion animals. My fascination with animals has continued into my adult life, and in addition to my husband and myself, our household includes three dogs, three cats and a gopher snake.

I also read voraciously as a child, and many of my favorite books had plots that revolved around animals. Some of these were fantasy stories, some were clearly rooted in the real world, and quite a few were somewhere in between. Animal-focused stories are less common in adult fiction, but they definitely exist. In general, books which revolve around animals seem to fall into five broad categories:

1. Stories where the main character(s) are humans, but their relationship with an animal or animals is the major focus of the plot. The reader only has access the human character's thoughts and perceptions via first person, limited third or omniscient narrative. The story doesn't get inside the animals' heads. Examples of this would be Old Yeller,  The Black Stallion, Mr. Popper's Penguins etc.

2. Stories where the story at least partially revolves around the animal's experiences, but the author does not put human thoughts or words into the animal's head (though they may, via omniscient narration, imply that the animal has a high level of intelligence and prescience). Examples of these would be: Lassie Come Home, Terhune's Lad of Sunnybank books, and many of Earnest Thompson Seton's stories about animals (which always left me in tears).

3. Stories where the animals speak to one another with words, and have very sophisticated thought processes, but where the animals are still very animal like in some ways. Watership Down, Bambi and Black Beauty are examples of these kinds of stories. These animals generally cannot speak to humans, and they may in fact be victimized by humans in the story.

4. Stories where the animal characters are really very much humans in fur suits. In these stories, the animals not only talk to one another, but they may wear clothes and live in houses (or at the very least, if they live in burrows in the woods, they may have possessions like furniture). These are often stories aimed at younger children. Examples include: Lawson's Rabbit Hill books, Beatrix Potter's stories, Richard Scarry's stories, Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle books and Eve Titus's books about Anatole the mouse.

5. Fantasy or Science Fiction Stories that have "wise beast" characters of one kind or another. By "wise beast" I mean animal characters who, because of magic or technology, have human levels of intelligence and can communicate with humans, but they are still not at all like humans. Examples of these would be: The Chronicles of Narnia, Jane Linksjold's Firestarter books, Robin Hobbs's Farseer Trilogy and David Brin's Uplift Wars trilogy.

So why do people, and most especially kids, love animal stories so much? One reason, I suspect, is that animals are forced to adapt to a world they didn't make and often required to live by rules they don't understand. Kids (and many adults) can certainly relate to this.

Another is that animals allow us to tell familiar stories and revisit familiar themes in ways that feel fresh. Watership Downs is hero's journey tale, but the fact that the characters are rabbits makes it an intriguing read to many people.

Animal characters also bypass many of the issues that come from selecting human characters of  a particular ethnicity, or even gender, as protagonists. The late Richard Scary said that he used talking animals in his books because he believed that would allow kids of all ethnic backgrounds to relate to his characters equally. I don't know if this is true or not, but no one can deny that his whimsical books have been popular with many generations of children.

But I think another reason people of all ages continue to enjoy animal stories is not so far off the reason so many people love speculative fiction: Stories about beings who are not us but whom we can still relate to are fascinating.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Are Female Authors and Characters Taking Over YA Ficton?

The numbers say no. It is interesting that when women pull even or slightly ahead of males in various endeavors, though, that some people will insist that this means they're taking over and ruining everything for the guys. In light of my blog subjects last week, this blog is an interesting read.




Sunday, February 17, 2013

Otherness in Fiction. Have People Always Been the Way They Are Now?

I belong to an online fantasy writing community, and there was a recent lively thread in their forums that raised the issue of whether or not it is plausible for a fantasy society to sell their non magically talented children into what amounted to slavery. The short answer, of course, is yes. There are numerous examples of parents giving up their children for all kinds of reasons throughout history, and in fact there are societies where parents do this today. But this raised another question: Does this mean that parents didn't love their children, or loved them less intensely in the olden days (or in modern times when they are economically distressed).

The answer to this question is harder to establish. It's pretty common to find educators and academics who claim that childhood is a completely modern construct and for them to make broad, sweeping statements about how all emphasis was on the family unit as a whole back then, and love (whether between partners or between parents and children) did not figure into things. They may even claim that love, as we define it today, did not exist. I even found one source that said that medieval kids were not allowed to play, which is a bit ridiculous when one considers that toys existed in the middle ages, and that archeological evidence for the existence of toys goes back to antiquity.

I think it is prudent to say that people loved their kids, and each other (just because a marriage is arranged does not mean that the people involved do not come to love one another), but there was a different understanding of the obligations and responsibilities that came as a consequence of this love. I think that is also true that in cultures with a high juvenile mortality rate (some sources say that up to 25% of babies died before their first birthday in the middle ages) the process of grieving was different, and parents often had to make choices about where to invest their time and energy that would be incomprehensible to people living in the a modern, post-industrial democracy.

The book Mother Nature, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy discusses the institution of motherhood across species and across human history and cultures. I think she provides a lot of evidence to support the notion that the circumstances a mother finds herself in will drive the choices they make with regards to the expression of maternal love.

This raised another question. Have people always been people, or was the experience of being human so different 1000 years ago, or even across different cultures today, that it's impossible for most of us (living in the US, Canada, Europe etc.) to relate? This is a question that is relevant to a writer of historic or speculative fiction, because it is our job to present people who live in different worlds and cultures realistically (as one writing buddy says, not just modern people in dress up) and yet also make their emotions, behavior and experiences understandable and relatable to a modern reader.

As someone who writes for fun, and who wants to get to a place where I can share my writing with more readers, I hope the answer is yes. One of the things that attracts me to both reading and writing (and especially reading and writing speculative fiction) is the concept of otherness. I love stories where I can get inside the head of a different person--someone who is not me but with whom I can relate. If a writer made me care for a medieval peasant or a soldier or a deeply religious person, or an alien from plant Xolorp, then I think they've done a good job. Likewise, if I'm able to get inside the skin of a character I'm writing to the point where I start thinking about how he, she or it would react to something in my world, I know I'm hooked on my own creation.

But there's no getting around the fact that there still needs to be something for me to "hang my hat on" as a reader or writer. I don't want or expect the characters I read or write about to be me, but if they're too alien, then I might have trouble as well. That's why most science fiction books that are written from the point of view of an alien are not as alien as all that. One of my favorite SF writers is C.J. Cherryh, and one of my favorite series she wrote were the Chanur books. The setting is a an alien trade compact where ships can "jump" between star systems, and several alien races have a relatively fragile peace that is based more on economic self interest than liking one another. She's got a couple of truly weird species in these books, but the point of view characters are all Hani, which are a lionlike species (in terms of their social system and rough appearance) but which are psychologically not all that different from ourselves.

And you don't even have to stray into the realm of aliens to run into difficulties. It can be even harder to read a story about a person who is recognizably human but makes decisions that are incomprehensible or unsympathetic to most of us. If I have a story that is set in a society where slavery is commonplace and largely accepted, it may be hard for a lot of readers to stomach a protagonist who blithely accepts the institution, even if it makes sense (at some level) for him or her to be a product of this culture. Of course, no one is going to lie exactly in the middle of the "normal" distribution for his or her culture with regards to attitudes and values. It is certainly possible to write a story set in such a society and to have a protagonist who at least questions the institution of slavery, finds it distasteful, or comes to question it via his or her experiences in the story. It is also possible to write a story from the point of view of someone who is a victim of the society's norms. Such characters are likely to be more relatable without being implausible.

The last tangent this thread went off on related to biology. There was a discussion of the fact that humans have probably not changed much in a biological sense in at least 100,000 years, but we appear to be an incredibly flexible species behaviorally and culturally. A lively debate about ethological topics as diverse as play behavior and maternal self sacrifice in non human animals ensued. I love this sort of thing, because my background is in biology, but the thread probably got sidetracked here. There was some debate/discussion about whether something existing for an evolutionary (or any other purpose) means that the individuals in question are not experiencing pleasure or other emotions while they engage in said behavior. The topic of animal emotions/cognition came up as well, which is a topic I may return to soon, as it also has relevance to a writer who is interested in otherness.

At the end of it all, though, these discussions raise the kinds of questions I think are good for writers to be thinking about.

Unlinked Reference.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. 1999. Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection. Pantheon Books, New York.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lessons From Valentine's Day

I don't really have anything all that clever to say about Valentine's day. Actually, it's not a really high priority holiday for me. Since my last two blog entries focused on gender related issues and stereotypes in writing, maybe this is just another reminder of how no one is going to fall at the middle part of the distribution for their sex (or any other demographic variable) in all, or even most, ways. One way I'm not "typical" for my gender is that I don't place a lot of value on things like jewelry and flowers, as a rule, and while I like a good meal out as well as the next person, I don't feel like we have to go out on valentine's day. Heck, my husband and I have been married for twelve years now, and we both forgot our anniversary last summer (we both remembered that we'd forgotten a couple of days later). As an ex boyfriend told me once, I haven't got a romantic bone in my body.

Well, maybe that's not strictly true. Relationships are important to me, and I love my husband with all my heart. I really do consider myself to be one of the luckiest women alive, and I believe in the power and importance of love. So this is why I was standing in the card aisle grocery store tonight (on the way home from work) with all the bemused men who were trying to pick just the right card for their wives or girlfriends. Seriously, I was the only woman there with the procrastinators. I found a cute card with two dogs on it. We both love dogs, and I know my husband prefers cute/funny over mushy.

A couple of years back, he gave me a valentine's card that had a picture of a dog on it. It read, "Valentine, I made a present for you. It's out in the yard." I laughed my rear end off.

But I've never been one of those stereotypical "high maintenance" women. At least not in this regard.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Stereotyping in Writing

I was recently in a dialog with some other writers where the issue of the portrayals of race and gender came up with regards to writing. The question came up of whether it's taboo to portray anyone who is not a white male in a negative light. This is a tough thing to discuss, because it has the potential to go off in so many different directions. First of all, of course, I think it's very possible to make a case that no such taboo exists, and that there are in fact plenty of examples in contemporary fiction where villains, minor characters and flawed protagonists exist who are not white males. The "taboo" in question is more about portraying people who have been underrepresented in a particular genre of fiction (or the media in general) in a stereotypically negative light.

A female character who is overly emotional, vain, bad at math, and who lacks a sense of the big picture may raise some hackles, especially in the absence of female characters in said story with different qualities. This does not mean that there aren't some women out there who really have some, or even most, of the negative traits traditionally associated with femininity (one can also argue that the assessment of some traits as negatives is subjective as well, but that's another topic). But women have been historically been denied access to many rights and choices based on these stereotypes. Some of us are even old enough to remember being told that certain careers were inadvisable or that certain activities or behaviors were just not appropriate for us.

So guess what? The stereotypes still rankle sometimes.

I think one can make the same argument for negative stereotypes associated with cultures, ethnicities, religions and orientations that have historically been in the minority, or historically had their humanity denied based on these stereotypes. There may be a time when these stereotypes are so comfortably in history's rear window--far enough away from the daily lives and experiences of the people who have been their victims for them to not be so hurtful--but I really don't think that we're there yet.

I think, also, that there is another issue that people often forget. There is no way to write any character in a way that will please or appeal to everyone or represent the "true and quintessential" experience of being a member of a particular group or subgroup of humanity. Lest one throws up ones hands and says, "Well I'm damned no matter how I write a minority or female character, so I'll just avoid writing them entirely," I'll point out that the relatively limited number of women and minority characters in traditional fantasy is precisely why one ends up feeling like every character from such a group is an ambassador for his or her entire group--something no one person or character can ever be. The only solution is to write a variety of characters and to do so with a reasonable amount of care and awareness of negative stereotypes while still allowing your character to be an individual.

Issues related to identity are still confusing at times. Most of us belong to many groups simultaneously, and we may identify more strongly with some than others. If you belong to a group that has been treated by our culture as the default "norm," you likely don't spend as much time thinking about it as you do thinking about your identities that lie outside that perceived "neutral" status (which, I hate to say, in the US, is still white, male, Christian, heterosexual etc).

I think one promising development is that we live in a time and place where very few people self identify, let alone take pride in, being prejudiced. This means that it is natural to feel a mixture of shame, fear, and guilt when someone suggests that one has expressed a prejudice of some kind. It's easy to get angry or defensive or deny the accusation categorically. Sometimes the hardest thing of all is to listen to someone else's arguments and to spend some time thinking about whether there is any truth in them or whether they are simply one person's opinion.