Image Credits: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay images. Book cover images from Chapeltown Books.
Some of my favourite childhood books involved animals. Think about Timmy from The Famous Five by Enid Blyton. I suspect he was the most intelligent of the lot of them.
I am an asthmatic, it was worse when I was a child and there was no question then of being able to have a dog of my own. But I could read about them and loved doing so. Ironically now I have no problems with having a dog as a companion and I still love reading. Neither do I mind animal characters as long as they are realistically portrayed.
Favourite Animal Fiction
Other favourites included:-
Black Beauty. I found out later that this one-off novel by Anna Sewell was specifically written to encourage kindness towards horses. I hope it encouraged that trait to other creatures too. And I just love the whole idea of an autobiography of a horse. Humans get to tell their stories all the time. I just love the idea of an intelligent animal getting the same opportunity!
Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Winnie the Pooh – the entire “cast” here. I do have a soft spot for Eeyore.
Confession time. I am not much of a cat fan. Sorry but there you go. I do love Puss in Boots though as portrayed in the original story and in the Shrek films. I just love the idea of the cat being much more intelligent than his human “master”. That has always amused me and still does.
Cat owners out there, I’m sure, will think nothing of it. They know who the master is – it isn’t them! (There’s a good joke which regularly appears on Facebook saying that dogs have owners, cats have staff. I swear there is a lot of truth in that!).
Can the same be said for dogs? Hmm… jury’s out on that one. It does depend on the dog!
Moving on into adulthood, The Hound of the Baskervilles was a riveting read (and dogs come into the Conan Doyle canon again thanks to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time reference. Holmes was right on that. It was curious the dog…. No spoilers here – but do see the link for more on this).
Writing from an Animal Viewpoint
I’ve sometimes written from the viewpoint of an animal. My Time for Some Peace, which I used as the book trailer for Tripping the Flash Fantastic, is written from the viewpoint of a mother dragon.
This story was great fun to do but works best as a very short piece. Why? One of the problems with writing from an animal viewpoint is working out what would be realistic (even for a fantasy creature such as a dragon). So the best way to approach this is to look at natural animal behaviour in our world and start from there. Here, my mother dragon character defended her young in a way anybody would understand and which matches what we know of animal behaviour here.
Most of my characters are human/humanoid and the advantages of writing from that viewpoint is I know something about human nature and behaviour, I know something about how we think and I can extend that out for humanoid creatures. For animal characters, it does have to be reasonable behaviour as we would expect from animals. So there is a huge limit immediately to what I can do for an animal character.
Limits are useful. They encourage you to think creatively but this is a major limit, for me anyway. So my animal stories will always be kept short though not necessarily sweet.
Animals can be a major feature in horror – think Jaws. I am so glad I only swim in a swimming pool. Even hearing the music for that film makes me shudder though John Williams did a fantastic job here. I heard an interview with him once where he said he was writing the score from the shark’s point of view.
You really can hear it in that music. I’ve not seen the film in its entirety – nor do I intend to! Listening to the score every now and again is as far as I go. And if you can hear the opening notes to this in your head, as I can while typing this, you will sense just how well Williams did here!
The length of the story helps here too. I’m asking a reader to suspend their disbelief when reading my words. For an animal story, I am more likely to achieve that over a short distance.
Watching the wildlife programmes is excellent research for fiction writing if you’re planning to bring animals into your stories. (It’s also a wonderful thing to do in and of itself of course).
Animals should be integral to your story and not an add-on
I am also wary using animals in fiction for another reason. They do have to have a good reason to be there, same as with any other character. It won’t work if the animal character is just added in. They have to play an important role. You shouldn’t be able to imagine the story without them. And this is why the classic fairytales work so well with their animal creations. All of them play a vital part. After all, where would Cinders have got her coach from without animals contributing to it?!
Animals crop up in other ways. We can refer to characters (or indeed each other) as rats, being as sly as a fox etc. We know that it is the key characteristics of the rat or the fox we are referring to here. It acts as a kind of shorthand though, by far, the best way of depicting characters like this is to show them being rat-like or fox-like in their behaviour. Readers will pick up on this without the writer having to spell it all out.
Animals can also reflect on us and our behaviour in works of fiction. Animal Farm by George Orwell, whom I’ve always admired for annoying the far left and the far right (the worst extremes), is probably the best known example here.
So think about why you might want to bring an animal into your story at all. I won’t fictionalise my pets. (I won’t fictionalise any other member of my family either, which I am sure will come as a relief to them!). I am happy to write stories, occasionally, from the viewpoint of other creatures, including dragons, but I want those characters to resonate with my readers. My readers still need to see why those animals are in the plot at all and why they are the way they are portrayed.
Mostly when I write animal stories, I want my readers to have some sympathy for those characters even if they then go on to dislike their actions. Understanding where a character of any kind is coming from is key to readers suspending their disbelief so they happily engage with the fiction you’re presenting to them.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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