A Man in Beast's Clothing

(Vision 2)

A Man in Beast's Clothing
Sarah Jane Elliott
©2001, Sarah Jane Elliott


When you immerse yourself in a fantasy world, chances are you’re going to come across a talking animal sooner or later. They’ve been running around fantasyland for a long time now.

Narnia is full of them. So is Oz. Talking animals are a staple of children’s stories, and the fond memories we get when reading them as children tend to stay with us, which may be why we love to read about talking dragons, telepathic horses, and intelligent eagles. But there is a problem with many of these inhabitants of fantasyland. Nine times out of ten, they act like people in animal suits.

Not that there’s anything particularly abhorrent about this -- Disney makes a fairly comfortable living off just such characters -- but too much of this sort of thing and they all run together. Your characters become just another human with some fur or feathers slapped on.

It’s easy enough to see where the anthropomorphic animals came from. Historically, a talking animal was used most often in literature as a metaphor for some aspect of humanity. In Aesop, the hare became pride, the tortoise perseverance, the fox cunning, the crow intelligence. They acted like humans because they represented humans.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis created Aslan the lion, one of the most famous anthropomorphic animals. But Aslan acts very little like a lion. Lewis adopted the literary devices of Aesops fables and early fairy tales to embody aspects of humanity in the Animals of Narnia. The wolves, only now losing their reputation as wicked, evil creatures, were the embodiment of savagery and bloodlust, and fell to the side of evil. The beavers, industrious and persevering, became the saviours of the human children. And Aslan himself, a lion, the symbol of strength and royalty, became a Christ figure. In the spirit of post-war idealism, Lewis created Aslan to be the epitome of logic, reason, compassion, and everything that post-war society craved in mankind. But because Aslan was a representation of these aspects of humanity, he lost his animal heritage.

Modern fantasy writers are faced with a tough challenge. Obvious allegory, like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, has been done. Today’s readers have seen it, and though we appreciate it, we need something new. We crave reality.

Think of the alien invasion theme in movies. In the 50s, movies like Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers were terrifying, but we aren’t frightened today. Today we want movies like Independence Day, with cutting edge effects that make things as real as possible. We don’t care as much about films that are metaphors for the dangers of communism. We want action, we want great characters to cheer for, and we want it as real as it can get.

The same is true for novels, which is why the man in beast's clothing is no longer a useful writer's tool. It has become cliché. Readers crave a story in which they can immerse themselves, and real, believable characters who become our best friends. A good way to do that is to strip away the humanity and make our animal characters what they are: animals who just happen to be able to communicate.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. You have to keep enough apparent humanity that the reader is still able to identify with the character, but at the same time immerse yourself in a totally alien mindset. The character is not human. Its responses are not going to be the same as the ones your human character has.

The easiest way to go about doing this is to take a good long look at your creature’s natural history. For example, let’s take a look at an intelligent species that you’ve decided to base on a wolf-type morphology (you can play around with that to your heart’s content, but that’s a whole other article). We’ll call it a jorveth. This wolf base can affect almost everything about your jorveth, from his people’s culture to the gestures we take for granted.

To begin with, your jorveth is going to be a carnivore. And unlike humans, who started out as scavengers until we had tools to help us out, he’s an active carnivore, with the biological equipment to back it up. Blood, death, and hunting are probably going to have a much bigger role in his culture than in that of your human characters. Not just in terms of ritual, but in everyday beliefs. Where a human would consider crying for someone an expression of grief, a jorveth might think it a much more fitting tribute to shed blood for a fallen comrade. His species will probably have more words for these things than humans do (my griffin have twenty-seven words for ‘blood’), and it will figure as a subject of their art, their literature, and their poetry.

Wolves run in packs with a very structured social hierarchy, so your jorveths may have something similar. Instead of monogamous families, you may have households composed of an alpha pair and assorted beta and gamma males and females. They may have formed elaborate rituals of greetings. Their rituals may not even be visual, as ours are -- the primate brain is unique in that it has a large portion of it devoted to vision and has very underdeveloped olfactory lobes. Canine and other mammal brains place a much higher emphasis on smell and hearing.

But don’t just think about culture... think about the little things. We all know what it means when someone shrugs, or laughs, or grimaces. These are little gestures that we take for granted, and they communicate a lot. Particularly the obscene ones. (“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”). But a jorveth can’t shrug, because he’s quadrupedal. He has to keep those feet on the ground. You have to think of new gestures that convey the same meaning as a smile, or a thumbs-up, or a blush. So go back to biology again. Clenched fists convey aggression in a human, but when a canine is angry, he goes stiff-legged and raises his hackles. Humans smile to show that they’re happy, but in canines, a show of the teeth is a challenge for dominance. A tail wag conveys the same as a smile. Learned gestures like shrugs are harder. You have to think of the ways a canine shows confusion. Little things like whines, or a flattening of the ears to the sides of the head. Ear-flattening in itself can have many different meanings, from happiness to fear, depending on the placement of the ears. A jaw snap can convey annoyance. Averting the eyes can mean embarrassment. Crouching low to the ground indicates submission or shame. There is a wealth of ideas for the taking -- there are a lot of animals that do a lot of neat things out there.

Anthropomorphic animals have been thoroughly sterilized, humanized, and sanitized for the purposed of conveying allegory. It’s about time we let them return to their roots. An animal character can still convey a metaphorical meaning, but there’s no reason why he can’t be interesting at the same time. Defy the conventions, skip the sanitization, and set the beast free.