A more common complaint I’ve seen about writers who write about animals at all, is that the animals, whether they are the main character, or whether they are a human’s pet, is that the animal is “too human.” While humans are technically animals too, what this complaint is really trying to say is that the animal has too many human-like qualities from having a voice to feeling human-like emotions.
Don’t worry about that complaint at all because you can make your animal characters as “human” as you want. The truth is animals do have voices, animals do have feelings, animals do have intelligence, and animals have a lot of “human-like” qualities. No matter what animal you’re thinking of, whether it is an ant or a whale, you’ll find at least one thing about that animal that’s “human.”
Ants put their graveyard of dead ants as far away from their food supply as possible (I‘ve noticed that every cemetery I‘ve ever been to doesn‘t have a food court or a restaurant within at least a block). Most animals that live in family groups or packs have a hierarchy. Prairie dogs have a complex linguistic system for identifying predators. There was a documented report of a lioness taking care of a baby antelope as if it was her cub. Pet dogs mimic their owner’s faces, which is where the “owners looking like their dogs” myth comes from. Crows and ravens can remember an individual human’s face and tell their family, their children, and their neighbors to attack that human! (Scary, isn’t it?)
I have a true story of my own. One morning as I was walking to school I was attacked by a small brown bird—I thought I was being attacked by a remote control airplane, it was so coordinated! It chased me until I ran around the corner. The next morning, a Friday, I watched the bird attack more students from across the street. I had no idea why the bird was doing it. On Monday, I thought for sure the bird had quit and braved the sidewalk only to be attacked again! Was it possible that a student threw a rock at it and now it hates humans? I wasn’t convinced that the bird was an all out racist, but if that was the case, I wouldn’t have blamed it if someone did try and hurt it. I told my best friend that I and other students kept getting attacked by the bird, so she and I investigated the site of the problem with me as bait. The problem laid there right in the middle of the sidewalk and I didn‘t even notice it. It was a dead baby bird. The bird that had relentlessly been attacking students for days was only trying to protect her baby. We decided to at least move it to the grass so people wouldn’t step on it—we probably would have buried it if the mother hadn’t still been trying to get us. After that, the mother still antagonized the students that walked by for another week, and then disappeared. That experience reaffirmed my thoughts that animals did have a capacity for emotions.
So if animals are so similar to humans, what’s the point of me writing this guide? Simply because this is to give you new areas to focus on so your audience can see through the eyes of your animal-like character. Even if a girly-girl is reading about a totally butch biker girl, if you express the emotions and actions so the reader understands why the biker is punching the snot out of some guy for just looking at her the wrong way, the reader will understand and still enjoy the story. It would be one of those “I would have done it differently, but I get why she did what she did” hopefully enjoyable moments. Think of animals just as a different kind of human. I’ll get to secondary characters that are animals later, but for now I’m focusing on main characters that are animals.
Just as there are different species of humans, from Caucasian to Japanese, Native Americans, Nigerians, and so on, there would be different species of animals. With those differences, you would have to think of the different locations, climate, plant-life, other animals—from prey to predators—their societies, and other necessities to survival. One species of finches uses tools to get insects while another finch doesn’t need a tool to eat seeds. Just like you would have to research the culture if you were writing in a different setting, research the animals and learn how they survive.
Maybe a crow from Japan speaks a different mode of language than the crows in the US, or maybe instead of a different language altogether, there is a heavy accent. We don’t really know because there haven’t been any thorough experimentations or observation on language barriers. Whether you want all animals of the same species speaking one language (whatever language you happen to be writing the story), then take note of the sounds, like the howl of a coyote, or yips and chirps of another animal. Just remind the audience that your character, while an animal who could easily translate the noise, is still a sound that humans don’t know. If you translated absolutely everything without describing what’s being translated (a bark, howl, yip, etc.) it’s much harder to picture the story whether it be the setting or another animal character.
Another way to create the illusion that the main character is an animal, without even having to tell the audience what kind of animal it is, is to describe the story from the animal’s point of view (even if the story is written in third person). Just as if a human is blind, you wouldn’t describe what color the apple was, you would describe the smooth crisp skin, and whether the apple smelled or tasted sweet or sour, and describe the juice dribbling down the arm. Wolves have great noses and ears, but have a very poor sense of taste (that’s why some people treat their own dogs like garbage disposals), so focus on smells and sounds. In addition, wolves and dogs aren’t completely colorblind, so research to see what their world would really look like than it just being black and white.
If your character is a bat, you would describe sounds, and how it bounces off of surfaces. If your character is an animal that is naturally deaf, you would describe the vibrations from the ground more than sight even if the eyes are as strong as touch because deaf humans’ sense of touch is stronger than their eyes, even if there’s nothing wrong with them. Yes, research the animal, but it’s OK to use humans as examples—if anything, it’ll help you gain a wide variety of audiences. If the animal isn’t completely without sight, hearing, taste, touch, or smell, you still have a chance to describe the settings from the weaker senses, but use vague terms, like it was bright, or there was a dull thud.
Also think of how their family works. Not all mothers love their children endearingly, and it doesn’t make them have a dangerous mental disorder for having that quality. Guppies like eating their children. Many birds, like the cuckoo and the cowbird, dump their eggs in another bird’s nest expecting the new host to take care of their young; cowbirds are one of a kind because if the new parents reject their egg, they’ll come back and destroy the parent’s eggs. Nurse sharks eat their own siblings while they’re still in the womb. While it’s odd to have only one wolf by him or herself, and it makes survival hard (make sure to describe that), it isn’t unheard of, and there could be various reasons for the wolf to be on their own. Then there’s the queen and colonies of bees and ants family situation where one ant is just a number instead of having a name, but you understand. There are various definitions of family in the animal kingdom.
Maybe you want to create your own animal or creature. Good for you. It’s a lot of work, but rewarding when you finish. What kind of animal do you want to create? Will it be an insect, mammal, reptile, amphibian, a bird, fish, an aquatic mammal, ad infinitum? Think of the habitat: what kind of weather it has, the seasonal changes, what kinds of plants there are, any reoccurring natural disasters, tides, etc. After all, you wouldn’t put a reptilian animal in an area like Antarctica, would you? Then think about it’s temperament along with it’s modes of defense or attack. While some snakes are rather docile and would prefer to slither away, there are a few that would chase you if you threatened it. If the animal flies or glides, how? Birds have strong muscles along with light-weight bones, but there are animals, like flying squirrels, or frogs or snakes, that stretches itself out and the skin, or webbed toes, or flattened bodies, act like parachutes. Is the animal more active in its travels, or is it like a jellyfish that goes where ever the current takes them? Does the animal have a migration or hibernation pattern?
I suggest looking into getting an animal encyclopedia book, or looking around online for an animal encyclopedia and get ideas from real animals that are around, or were around, here on Earth. Nothing inspires creativity quite like what you see in your own backyard. Or in this case, the internet. Be careful of hoaxes though. I’m not saying you can’t write about mermaids, big foot, moth man, aliens or other creatures where there are huge scientific debates about, it’s just if someone is saying that they are a witness (or they are a friend of a friend of the witness), treat it with skepticism. It’s amazing what people can pull off with Adobe or Photoshop—even to video. The show Fact or Faked is amusing to watch just to see who’s created videos as a hoax.
If you are going to write about animals that are based on mythology, folk lore, fairy tales, legends and such, read about all you can about them. Most people assume that Unicorns are just horses with a horn, but there are many different mythologies about them. Some say that Unicorns have the body of a horse, tail of a lion, legs of a goat, and head of a dragon! Even if you’re writing about a humanistic species of mythology, like vampires, or elves, or fairies, read all you can about them in many areas of the world. Or you can just stick to the typical horse with a horn, or the modern portrayal of vampires—I like researching so I consider it a personal must.
After you’ve done as much research as you feel you need to, then you can create your “human-like” additives to your animal/creature. I already described linguistics in the example of crows from two different countries. Maybe animals do have deities to worship, like an ant-equivalent to Gaia, or the wolf-equivalent to Luna. Maybe they do have holiday traditions—telling stories, hunting, singing or even a form of dancing—during a special kind of weather or time period. Maybe they can talk to humans, but choose not to, or they have forgotten.
In We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Mary Katherine, the human main character, has a cat named Jonas, and refers to him quite often throughout the story even though he doesn‘t really do anything except follow her around and keep her company. He’s her friend, and that’s enough for the story. At one point, Mary Katherine makes him seem more human, but perfectly cat-like, with the passage, “I lay there with Jonas, listening to his stories. All cat stories start with the statement: ’My mother, who was the first cat, told me this’.” Jonas didn’t even have a voice except for that one part, and even though Jonas wasn’t a big part of the story, this was an example of creating human-like qualities for animals in a form of tradition. Of course it was most likely due to Mary Katherine’s imagination taking over the narration, but I still consider it an example.
Like Twain said, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”
If you are writing in the fantasy genre, and the animal, or the creature you created, has an abnormal ability or powers, just like with humans, please refer to my other guide “How Much Power is Too Much Power.” There, you’ll learn about different sorts of abilities, weaknesses, the Hero Cycle, and how to balance it all. The only thing I can add onto, or highlight further, is that if every animal of the species has an ability, then it’s not a superpower. If it’s genetic only within a family of a certain species, then it is a power, but it’s a genetic mutation where some have it, and others don‘t, and there‘s a chance another family could get the same genetic mutation. If only an individual animal within the entire species has the power, then it’s considered very abnormal, which can raise some flags, but it won’t be Mary-Sueish depending on which genre your story is, and how you portray and explain this power. Abilities can have a mix of different explanations.
Whether it’s a creature you created, or an animal that actually exists, you do need to explain the abnormalities sooner or later within the story. You basically just need to answer the how, why and maybe when. How did he or she come across this power? If she was born with it, how did he or she learn to control it, and why this individual or his or her family, or why this species of animal? Also is there a time when their powers don't work? This doesn't necessarily have to have an answer at all; it's just something to think about if it pertains to your character. “How Much Power is Too Much Power” would be able to go into depth in figuring out how to answer these questions, but it’s ultimately up to you how to answer them.
What if your main characters are human, but animal characters, or just animals, play a part? I think this is that complaint of the animal being “too human” really comes from. Has anyone watched those 60‘s film, Lassie? All she does is bark, but humans seem to somehow understand her. I'm sure most of you have heard this somewhere. “What is it Lassie? Little Timmy’s stuck in a well?” It wasn’t the dog’s fault, Lassie was strictly barking, it was the humans who somehow understood that Timmy was stuck in a well. Dog, cat, or horse whispering is one thing, but fully understanding them? It’s instances like these that reflect something awful on animals.
We’ve seen them. Snow White just sings and the wild animals in the forest are at their beck and call, but that’s Disney. It’s supposed to be a fairy tale dreamland—everything a girl wishes for. If the animal is supposed to talk, whether it’s for a cartoon, or a fairytale kind of story, that should be fine. Remember the Grimm Brothers fairy tales—it’s chalk full of animals that talk, dance, sing, and all that jazz, and that’s fine. If you’re writing in the fairy tale genre of fantasy, go ahead and write animals talking, dancing, singing, and composing musical pieces that would rival Wolfgang’s.
If you’re writing more realistic pieces, then you’re going to have more rules to follow. First, if you want your character to attract animals, figure out a reason why, whether it’s a supernatural special ability within the voice, an instrument, a charm, food, whatever, just figure out a reason and think on why it’s important.
Pets are also a common theme as a secondary or minor character. Whether it’s a common pet, or a more exotic pet, research them down to the breed. Yes, pets can be weird—one of my cats likes lemonade, and the other cat likes melons—so look on YouTube to see all this weird stuff pets do. Just because a character’s pet is a little exotic, like, say, a skunk, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible for a fictional character to have one. Make sure to look up legal pets, pets you have to have a license for, pets where you pay a legal fine for owning one, and pets that are downright illegal. To be on the safe side, I would avoid pets that you have to pay a fine for or any pets that are illegal. It would be rather anticlimactic if the main character nearly gets killed by the main villain, heals, and ends up getting eaten by his pet tiger.
Lastly, if your character is supposed to have this magical bond with an animal, not counting the “bond of friendship”, make sure you somehow explain it all. Personally, I would call this a superpower because if the character was in trouble, it would just call to his animal partner, and it would rescue him or her, so, like every power, there has to be a way to weaken the ability, whether it’s merely to block the communicative link, or for it to have no link at all and have the animal be a rogue wild animal again. Do the human and the animal have to be touching in order to be able to communicate? Is there a magical pendant? Is it merely mental, using telepathy? It’s your story, you figure it out.
As always, I hope that this was in anyway helpful, if helpful at all. If you feel I missed something, or think I can dive in deeper, let me know via review, and I’ll edit this to hopefully explain further.