How to Write an Animal Character for a Fiction Story
Animal characters have a long history in literature and on the screen. The 'Houyhnhnms' of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift are a race of civilised horses; in George Orwell's Animal Farm, the pigs on the farm rise to a frightening power in an allegory of the Russian Revolution and Stalinism; and on a lighter note, there are a plethora of children's books featuring creatures like Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and a host of cartoon animal characters like Tom and Jerry, Disney's Mickey Mouse, or the ever-so-pink The Pink Panther.
Some animal characters are straightforward to put on the page. Storybooks for very young children rely on bright and appealing pictures to get simple messages across —counting objects or introducing simple language. But animal characters in books for older children or in novels for adults are a little more complex.
Any character depends on the author's skill in writing and characterisation, but there are three basic things you need to remember and give some thought to when creating an animal character in your story:
- the reason why you chose an animal rather than a human character;
- its place in the plot of the story;
- and the delicate balance between animal and human traits—what is it about the character that signals to the reader that this is an animal rather than human, and how will your reader identify with a character that is from a whole different species?
Why Is Your Character an Animal?
Readers need to be able to see a reason why you chose an animal character. Sometimes it can be easy to see why—in Eric Carle's A Very Hungry Caterpillar, the story is an illustration of the lifecycle of that creature and its transformation into a butterfly.
In Gulliver's Travels, the Houyhnhnms serve as a turning point, when Lemuel Gulliver breaks free from his own species, tired of its shortcomings and faults. Animal Farm is an allegory and satire and uses animals to illustrate aspects of human nature that are extreme and might perhaps be unpalatable if human characters were used.
Your own reasons might be more or less complex. They might be idealistic, political, satirical, allegorical or comedic - or even just for pure fun! But whatever they are, try to pinpoint them and be aware of why you chose an animal character - you don't have to state it directly in the story, but if you think through the reasons, it will show through in your writing and make it easier for your readers to understand where you are coming from and the point you are trying to make.
An Animal Character's Place in Your Fictional World
Does your animal character hold a centre-stage position in the story? Is it a side-kick? Does it have just a small part to play that serves to illustrate an important characteristic of one of the main characters?
The caterpillar of Carle's classic children's book lives in a world that is more or less real. It doesn't step much outside the boundaries of what really happens in a caterpillar's life. George Orwell's pigs in Animal Farm live in a fantasy world, where animals speak and think in a manner roughly equivalent to humans.
An animal character's place in your fictional world overlaps with its reason for being in your story. Carle's caterpillar doesn't need fantastical elements because the story is about a real event that happens in nature—a caterpillar's stunning transformation into a butterfly. Orwell's tale, and Swift's, both used fantasy to reflect reality, to make complicated, abstract concepts and human difficulties accessible and clear to a wider audience.
You might not want your own story to be as complicated as Orwell's, or as simple as Carle's, but spending time thinking about the message you want to convey, and the audience you are aiming for, will give you and your readers a clearer idea of your animal character's place in the world you create.
Animal Traits vs. Humanlike Characteristics
More Human Than Animal? Or Wild Versus Civilised
Ask yourself whether the character serves the story better as an animal with human traits, or a human with a touch of animal about him (or her). Animal Farm and Gulliver's Travels are satires of man's woeful inhumanity to man, and the authors' use of animals were deliberate attempts to make the reader pause and think in simple terms about complex issues – the animal characters are almost completely human in thought and actions. Carle's caterpillar, by contrast, is almost completely animal, except for the hint of self-realisation that he is eating rather a lot.
What Message Does Your Animal Character Send?
Using an animal character sends a strong message—whether it's a political and social message like Orwell and Swift; or the comedic message of cartoons like Tom and Jerry, which gives us permission to laugh at some pretty hefty slices of cat-on-mouse violence.
Deeper Meaning in Simple Animal Characters: The Social Mirror
In Family Guy, Brian knows he's a dog, and his life is limited and restricted because of that, and he suffers quite some humiliation at the hands of his nearest and dearest because he is a dog; but the (human) characters treat each other just as carelessly—Brian is a social mirror—the everyman 'second class citizen'—but he is not the only character to suffer because of who he is; Stewie's dreams are crushed again and again because he is a baby and world domination must wait until after nap time.
The situations in Family Guy are bizarre and outrageous in the extreme—dogs do not, in real life, drink martinis and hand out casual pearls of deep wisdom, and babies do not have secret plans for world domination—but Stewie and Brian parallel real-life allegorically: at its simplest, that all our dreams are impossible because we are who we are and we want to be that which we are not. Unless your story is to become as dry as a science textbook, animal characters need human traits, and there must be a reason why you choose to make them animal rather than human—and the reader should be able to identify your reason, even if it is 'just for pure fun!'
Once you have decided the purpose within the story of your animal character, you have to decide which of their traits will be human and which will be animal.
Humans project human traits onto animals. We do it with everything, in fact. People talk to their plants, their cats, their dogs, and when they move house they might even say a tearful goodbye to their childhood home.
So your readers will understand and identify with any human traits that you give to your animal characters—whether you make them talk, sing, dance or have jobs in the city. But if they are essentially animal, you need to give them animal traits too – your talking cat might have an amoral streak, or whiskers, or maybe just a hint of a furry nose and a tendency to chase mice; or it might be a werecat, who takes on cat form at full moon and is human for the rest of the month.
Does Your Dog Host Dinner Parties?
Think of human/animal as a sliding scale. At one end of the scale you have an ordinary house cat, or a tiger, or an elephant, who cannot speak or dance or be an accountant; who eats and sleeps, and if they have a thought in their heads we are not privy to it except by guessing.
At the other end of the scale is a human, perhaps one that chases cars like a dog, or sleeps all day in the sun like a cat, but who is essentially human, and who flips burgers for a living, or reads the works of Agatha Christie, or cooks beef bourguignon and holds dinner parties. Decide what makes your character an animal, what traits they have that mark them out as such, and what traits you will give them that will make them identifiable to your human readers.
Examples of Animal vs. Human Traits in Novels
Examples of extremes of this human/animal sliding scale are the following brief excerpts. The first is from The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, in which the protagonist Ariel briefly 'jumps' inside the mind of a laboratory mouse:
But I can’t hear him because I am screaming, too. But I can’t even hear that properly because the pain stops me registering anything very much. I want to die...I don’t know what death is, but there’s something in my mind that does, and understands that I should be able to move […] and maybe I’d be able to see. What is seeing? The world is a black slab, and I have never known anything apart from this. (Thomas, The End of Mr Y, p. 480)
Thomas's mouse is pure mouse, an unthinking creature whose thoughts need to be filtered through the human protagonist in order for them to make sense to the reader. The mouse does not know words, but the reader does, so Thomas uses a technique to get around this, shifting perspective (or blurring it) between mouse and human—the mouse-human thinks 'maybe I'd be able to see,' but this thought must be partly from the human part of the creature because then we find out that the mouse does not have any concept of sight—it has been blind from birth, 'The world is a black slab, and I have never known anything apart from this.'
This excerpt is stream-of-consciousness, or rather stream-of-two-consciousnesses. It isn't something that could keep a reader's attention for very long—it might reflect something of how a real mouse thinks, but a human reader needs something closer to their own way of thinking where words can be used without the thinker questioning the meaning of them ('What is seeing?').
The second example is from Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents:
Some of the younger rats had suggested that perhaps clothes were more important than everyone thought. They'd tried wearing waistcoats, but it had been very difficult to bite out the pattern, they couldn't make the buttons work and, frankly, the things got caught on every splinter and were very hard to run in. Hats just fell off. (Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, p. 49)
The Pratchett excerpt is much more accessible. Pratchett's rats have thoughts that humans would have if they were rats—if they had paws instead of hands, and couldn't use scissors or buttons. These rats understand words, and although some human concepts (like clothes) are alien to them, they can express themselves in terms we understand. If the whole of Thomas's book were like the excerpt, it would be clever, philosophical and experimental, but it would have very few readers.
Putting It All Together: Getting to Know Your Character
To be effective and engaging, any character has to be clear and real to at least one person—you, the author, and this is as true of animal characters as it is of human ones. A good way to flesh out a character is to write a few different 'scenes'—just short ones that may not have anything to do with the story you're planning (though they may end up in it).
Keep these scenes relevant to the story you're writing. If your story is set now, in the twenty-first century, in Britain, and your character is a sentient, talking cat, write a scene where they go to the corner shop—how do they interact with the shopkeeper? How does the shopkeeper react to them? Then write another scene where they go to the local sports centre to play squash or some other common everyday activity.
If your story is set in eighteenth century France, and your character is a peasant woman who is a witch with the ability to turn into a rat, write a scene where she gets arrested and imprisoned—again, how does she interact with other people—the guards and fellow prisoners? How does the change from woman to rat happen? Is it painful? Fast? Slow? Can she change at will or is it beyond her control? Get to know the character, even if you just spend five minutes doing it—it will make their actions in the story more consistent and convincing if you are writing from a position of strong knowledge of them.
Dialogue and Thoughts of Animal Characters
How will you handle the dialogue of animal characters—'he said' and 'she said' can be used over and over in a story—'said' is a background word like 'a' or 'the'—words like this bear many repetitions without becoming tiresome, but 'she purred' or 'he growled' is unexpected and should be used judiciously if they are not to interrupt the flow of the piece and become annoying.
Read books like the 'Houyhnhnm' section of Gulliver's Travels, or Animal Farm, or Watership Down and look at how those authors handle the speech and reported thoughts of animal characters—you might have entirely different ideas about what would work, but reading how other authors handle animal characters might give you fresh ideas and help you overcome any tricky aspects of your story.
Summary: Things to Think About When Planning an Animal Character
Human vs. Animal Traits
Where do they come on the sliding scale? Are they more human than animal or vice versa? If they have the ability to speak, how will you write the dialogue? If they don't have speech, how do they communicate with other characters? Are their thought processes different from human ones, and how will you narrate them?
What Is Your 'Strong Reason' to Have an Animal Character?
How does the character fit into the plot? Is it essential to the story that they are an animal, and if not, what is your strong argument for writing them as one? Comedy? Allegory? A shock ending when their non-human nature is revealed? Whatever your reasons, they have to be an integral part of the story; even children's books have some outstanding reason for an animal character—simple and cute joy, entertainment, or engagement through illustration, for instance. A 'strong' reason does not have to be deeply philosophical, but it does have to be identifiable.