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.


  1. Some good points, especially about the universality and otherness. One book you don't mention is Kipling's The Jungle Book (not to be confused with the Disney thing) which was one of my favourite books when I was about 10 or 11. True in many of the stories you have Mowgli, but he fully interacts with the jungle creatures, and some of the stories (eg The White Seal) are completely from the animal POV.

  2. Funny you should mention Kipling, because I started thinking of Kipling's stories after I finished. I always enjoyed those too, and the Jungle Book is a classic, as are many of his other tales.

    I also left out an important category: animal focused fables or legends. When I was a kid, I had this great big book of folk tales from different cultures that featured animals. It seems like many, if not most, cultures have traditions of revering at least some kinds of animals or of using stories with animal characters in them to teach and reinforce important moral lessons. I think Kipling's Just So Stories are intended to be amusing and satirical takes on these kinds of fables.

    I loved those when I was a kid.

  3. Do you know The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness? Almost every review of this book picks out the character of Tod's dog as being their favourite. Manchee plays a (tragically) short role in the novel, but I agree that his cameo performance is a gem. Why? Maybe because he is even more of a foil than the adolescent human protagonists to the cruelty and inhumanity of their dystopian society. Animals are never cruel. Cruelty as a notion doesn't exist for them so we, and especially kids can count on them to be the ideal friend—to always be around and never ask anything in return for their friendship.

  4. I haven't. I probably should steel myself and read it, though dogs dying of anything other than ripe old age is one of those things I have trouble with in stories.