Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Animal People

A recurring theme of this journal, no doubt, will be treatment of the anthropomorphic animal characters that tend to show up in my work. When presenting a story to an audience conditioned to expect and like that kind of character, fine, no explanation needed, except maybe enough to fit them into one of several archetypes: four-foot, two-foot, plantigrade, digitigrade. For an audience without those preconceptions, the process of explaining what the characters are has to be quick and painless, and therefore has to use images and concepts that exist in the mainstream. Again, if it's just a smart/talking animal, not so much a problem. "Fluffy lounged in the afternoon sun, occasionally lifting her head to tell her pet, Carol, to open another can of cat food." But if the characters are more humanoid, then what?

I think this relates to the big question: what element of the story requires a humanoid animal character? When bringing in those descriptions of the characters, be sure to relate it back to that part of the story as much as possible. If it's the differences from humans that matter, emphasize those. If it's more of a parable with furry critters subbing for different social classes, highlight the species differences.

And then you get into what to call them. "Anthropomorphic animals" is unwieldy and too vague, anyway, applying as it does equally to Hazel from "Watership Down" and Disney's Robin Hood. The term I've come across most recently that I think works is "human-animal hybrids" (thank you, President Bush). That gives you a definite starting point that implies physical attributes of both humans and animals, and the most natural result is a humanoid creature with animal traits. The reader can then wait for you to fill in the animal traits.

I'm going to try that one out, but if anyone has other thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

7 comments:

Rikoshi said...

The term I've come across most recently that I think works is "human-animal hybrids" (thank you, President Bush). That gives you a definite starting point that implies physical attributes of both humans and animals, and the most natural result is a humanoid creature with animal traits.

One minor (or possibly major) problem with that is that it implies that the characters in question result from a literal hybridization of human and animal, not just in traits and attributes but in origin or creation.

If, for instance, someone were writing a fantasy setting where the inhabitants were simply anthropomorphic animals, or a science fiction setting where an alien race just happened to look like a cross between, say, human and wolf, I'd almost go so far as to say that the term 'human-animal hybrid' would be either misleading or downright inaccurate.

You do pose an interesting question, though, as to what these types of critters should be called; unfortunately, I've never been able to think of anything good, myself, and so that's probably why I've never referenced them by name in any of the stories or settings I've used them in. :)

Rikoshi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rikoshi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rikoshi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rikoshi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
NedSanyour said...

I used to read a bunch of SF and Fantasy. Lately, not so much. Still, I read enough to have some of my favorite characters be pretty Far From Human.
I think it is hard for me to view animal-esque main characters as 'hard for the reader to grasp' as long as they are used well. I guess the *nature* of the alien creature is so often part of the crux of a story that skimming over the 'otherness' seems to miss the point, so to speak.
It is hard for me to say, though, because everything from Puss in Boots to The Ballad of Lost C'Mel to Chewbacca sets me up to, in order
(1) accept the animal-person as part of the story;
(2) see that character as emblematic of human traits and providing an outsider vantage point from which to explore human traits;
(3) search a bigger story for little clues about what traits the alien creature has.

You comment that each story might have a different reason for a 'humanoid animal character' and that the style of descriptions of those characters should be in tune with that. I think that is a great point.

World creation in SF/Fantasy is where a great deal of the energy goes, and it is a tough balancing act to tell enough without telling so much the book is boring. I do think that the setting and the character types are what is unique, and most easily will excite the new reader. Not to take advantage of that by rolling in some good description seems like a disservice to yourself.

Tim said...

I think I've settled on calling them "New People" and explaining later what they are like.

There's an interesting point there about a lot of energy going into world creation. I think SF/fantasy readers have a higher tolerance for world description by default for just that reason. That imagination is part of why we read SF and fantasy. Imagine if J.K. Rowling never spent any time telling us about the wizarding world, or if Tolkien had just focused on the action rather than giving us word-picture-histories of Middle Earth. We do want to know about the world we're in, and that includes the curious characters who inhabit it. Thank you both! I go forward with a renewed sense of purpose!