07 July 2008

Multi-Dimensional Animals

Allo. With our valiant Coffee-Stained Writer away from the office, I figured I'd sneak in and have my way with the place. Seems like a good time to answer a plea from an old and dear friend that ended up in me website email inbox:

When one puts animals in books, one should include a wide spectrum of emotions not just good/bad animals. Like us, they are complex living beings with a wide variety of emotions. In short, we are tired of reading about one dimensional animals!!

I'll be expanding on this theme for the Dojo someday, when I manage to wrestle enough time away from the 14,253,862 projects on my plate to update the bloody thing. But let's just do a quick hit-and-run to keep the Hankinator happy, shall we?

I'll leave it to our literary barista to hit this from the non-SF side. I'm just going to say this: if you're writing a mystery novel, please o please do not stick a cat in there contemplating its own awesomeness. Patricia Cornwell did that in one of her incredibly awful non-Scarpetta books, and it was surreal in the very worst way.

She could've at least avoided the Egyptian motif (soooo overdone!) and gone with a feline with severe self-esteem problems.

In fact, you should avoid animal soliloquies entirely, unless sentient animals are a central part of your story.

Now, let's move on to SF. I've noticed a definite tendency among many SF authors to have their animal characters act just like humans. Aside from the occasional reference to four legs and fur, you'd hardly know you're dealing with an animal as a main character. Talk about one-dimensional. They're delicious, nutritious, and act just like humans!

We won't even discuss those authors whose animals, like their people, wear white hats or black hats with nary a shade of gray. Ridiculous. It's obvious that animals, like humans, will be a complex mix of contradictory urges. Take my cat, for one: she has her moments when she's a perfect saint, and days when I think I'm living with the devil incarnate. You've all owned animals that, while usually well-behaved, occasionally give in to their baser impulses and leave you with a house full of chewed-up slippers and gnawed turkeys.

It's bad enough when an author's animals act just like people, but when they act just like cardboard caricatures of people, it gets really bad.

There are a few quick fixes for the urge to write one-dimensional animals.

First off, think of all the pets you've owned. Different personalities, weren't they? Proper little individuals. Write down a list of their traits, and notice how varied they are. The cats are as different from each other as they are from the dogs. Even fish have their unique moments. And horses - ye gods, the horses. Ours had Issues. One suffered from claustrophobia and the other separation anxiety. They had days when they wanted to go out and play and days when they'd do everything in their power not to stir from their stalls.

Second thing to do is research animals. There are some ways in which they're similar to people, but astounding ways in which they're different.

Start with physiology. Their senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch are far different from ours. Get to know how they experience their world. What does yellow look like to a dog? What does it feel like to find your way with your face, as cats do in the dark? Read all you can on the way the perceive the world and how their bodies work, and then try to move inside those bodies. Try to be the animal.

World seems a lot different, doesn't it?

Next, delve into animal psychology. There's a remarkable number of books that will tell you about the mind and society of dogs, cats, birds, horses, lizards, and just about anything else humans can get their hands on. They don't think quite the way we do. Figure out what their mental world's like. That will allow you to do new and interesting things with your stories rather than just telling them from the point of view of humans masquerading as animals.

Study their language. How do they communicate? How would that communication affect their relationships, the way they think? Language is a huge part of who humans are - people who think in different languages see the world differently. Imagine how much different it would be for animals who don't have the human vocal chords and language centers in their brains. They'd have to experience things differently.

But all living things have fundamental similarities. Once you've gotten through figuring out what's drastically different, it's time to move on to what's nearly the same. Almost every animal is going to have the same basic needs: food, water, shelter, sleep, sex, and love. Doubt me on the love part? Why does your cat sometimes deign to give you the time of day? That's right - she loves you because you feed her.

Finally, and most fun, bust the stereotypes. Cats are aloof and uncaring, small gods almost right? Write yourself a clingy, insecure feline in need of constant reassurance. Dogs are unfailingly loyal and friendly? How about a dog that's using that stereotype to grift? Talk about the world's greatest con artist! How about a cat and a dog that team up to fleece the gullible - the cat as the mysterious psychic, the dog as the shill in the audience, leading audience members to suspend their disbelief because he's so friendly and trustworthy? There's a story!

You're welcome to write it. I won't be using it - refer to the 14 million etc. things above.

Right, then. Off you go. And remember to make your animals well-rounded individuals, or Hankinator shall be very upset with you.


  1. Last week at the office, I was walking down a long hallway in a bit of a mid-working-day trance state. Walking toward me from the other end of the hallway was a young woman. As we approached each other in the middle, at a distance of maybe four feet, I was struck by a wall of perfume. Not unpleasant perfume, just strong. The scent peaked as we passed each other, but then continued to linger as I walked on down the hall along the path she had just taken.

    The scent was palpable, and seemed to have a definite shape, the fuzzy outline of a woman, extended through space, gradually diminishing in size (but not strength), to the size of child, then a doll, before finally disappearing some 10 yards from where we had passed.

    It then occurred to me, "This must be what it's like to be a dog." Imagine your whole world consisting of criss-crossing chemical trails, detailing the moods and movements of every living thing passing through the area in recent memory. Imagine a landscape not as a static presentation of objects, but as a continuously updating, dynamic record of events. Landscape as logbook.

    And that's just dogs. Every other critter has its own sensory map that is just as foreign. Animals are alien intelligences among us.

  2. "Second thing to do is research animals."

    Another thing to do is to think about "research animals". Cats and dogs are used in research labs. Someone once said: "they don't have feelings", but I say "that's all they've got is feelings. No reasoning, or very little, but they do FEEL.

    Yup, I'm an antivivisectionist. Aren't you?


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