Critters In Fantasy Part Two


Last week I talked a little bit about animals in fantasy.  In my opinion, your world isn’t quite fleshed out until there are four-legged creatures wandering around.  And winged, and finned, and web-building ones, too.  You may not see them around you in the real world, but there are all sorts of critters living in the world with us, and the occasional sighting of a bunny in your backyard or a mourning dove on the power line is unusual enough to make even the hardest-hearted curmudgeon stop and stare for a second.  They belong in your fictional world, so don’t forget them while you’re crafting your awesome tale of adventure and thrills.  You can also display a character’s personality by showing how they interact with animals.

So is that all animals are good for, as revelation or set dressing? 

Glad you asked.   

Animals mean many things to many people.  Ever heard the phrase “timid as a mouse”?   People say that because mice tend to scamper away when people come too close for their comfort.  To me, though, mice are far from timid.  I live in the country, so every now and then, a field mouse finds its way indoors.  At that moment, war is declared.  They’re foul, evil animals who have an agenda that involves taking over my house someday and driving me to move to Antarctica.  The word I’d pick to describe mice would more likely be impudent. 

On the other hand, most people are repulsed by snakes.  Me?  Love them.  Peaceful is the word that I equate with snakes.  They’re smooth and warm (when they’ve been lounging in the sun or on their heat rocks) and it’s almost meditative to let a snake slither from one of your hands to the other, over and over.    And they eat mice, which makes my life more peaceful, but that’s just a personal bonus. 

Many authors have chosen to use animal characters as symbols of higher concepts, in order to make an intangible idea easier for the reader to grasp.  A classic example are the animals in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.  Aslan the Lion, Son of the Emperor-Over-Sea, is representative of Jesus Christ, the redeemer figure from Christianity.**  In Christian stories, Jesus was kind and giving, but could be pushed into anger by wrongdoing done in God’s name.  Most of all, he was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others.  In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan gives his life to defeat the evil that threatens Narnia.  I’ll be honest…years of Sunday school never made me cry so hard as that one scene in Lewis’ book.  Somehow, telling the story from an animal’s point-of-view made it far more touching for me.

Another animal that serves a similar purpose is Bill the Pony, from The Fellowship of the Ring.  Bill joined the party in Bree, but they were forced to set him free to find his own way when they entered Moria.  Sam grieved that he’d sent Bill to certain death, but Bill survived to the end, to be reunited with Sam on his way home.  Bill was a symbol of the life they were being forced to leave behind, something they might never live to return to.  He was a pony, but he was also home and family and tradition.

So have you used animals to represent higher concepts in your stories?  How did you pull it off? 


**Please, don’t forget, we all share different faiths.  So please be thoughtful and don’t  post anything that might start a religious war. I reserve the right to wield the Delete Button of Justice on anyone who doesn’t play nicely on this issue.


13 comments to Critters In Fantasy Part Two

  • TwilightHero

    I’ve got a custom-ish sort of thing in my WIP, where people have a totem animal based on what season they’re born in. I wanted the animals to represent the sort of feelings the seasons would give you, as well as elements of the animals themselves. So the animal for winter, for example, the white wolf, symbolizes cold and loneliness and loyalty to those around you. The golden eagle, for summer, on the other hand, represents the sun, clear skies and that sense of exhilaration you’d associate with flight, that this is the best time of your life, i.e. optimism. (Since summer is the high point of the year :P) It’s just a bit of world-building, not that important to the story, and since I’ve had bigger things – like the story – to worry about, it isn’t finished. I’m still considering some sort of furry, cheerful-seeming, industrious creature for spring, and have no idea what to use for autumn. Something solemn, maybe.

    I enjoyed the Narnia books growing up, but never noticed the Christian symbolism until overhearing someone mention it years later. Then I thought back and had an ‘ohh yeahhhhh’ moment 🙂

  • I grew up in what was (back then) the country, where my own family dog, Rusty, defended the family cat against Duke, a much bigger black lab, from across the street. It was a real fight, and Duke backed away. Cat then groomed Rusty’s feet in thanks. I thought he was a hero, until later on, I caught Rusty and Duke throwing something into the air, letting it hit the ground, for them to chase, catch, and toss high again. I went into the field and … they were tossing a baby rat. Still living. Terrified. Dogs were having fun. It was their nature, just as protecting the house cat was. I think that was my first moment of understanding about the nature of a living being. And that understanding infused my writing ever after. All my animals are feral.

    I took a hit from fans in one book where Beast hunted down a nursing rabbit, ate it, and then hunted down her babies and ate them. But it ws nature. And it sais something about my character that I needed people to know. She had her own agenda.

  • Unicorn

    As an animal lover and radical Christian, I *adored* every second of the Chronicles of Narnia. And I cried my eyeballs out at the end of the movie version of “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”.
    With animals being characters in my stories, they’ve exhibited many good traits. I think people display so many virtues like courage or selflessness in literature and film that readers get almost blase to it. But put in a dog who kills a bear to save his master, or a stallion who seeks out his unhorsed rider, and the message seems to be hammered home with even more clarity.
    For me personally, as a besotted horsewoman, there are few things more proud, more noble, or more courageous than a mighty, fiery horse. That’s what my current hero’s mount stands for – a higher purpose overriding base instinct. As for pulling it off, I have no idea how I will keep it from getting unrealistic and sappy, so I’m counting on my experience with horses to make it real.
    Thanks for the post!

  • I’ve got a dog in one of my books–Loch is his name. And he belongs to a priest, ’cause I figured a seer priest from Texas needed a dog. He’s a scottish wolfhound, that’s why he’s got the name. My MC Mary can’t really have animals–she sets stuff on fire, so it could get ugly, but she feels like she doesn’t have the time. She also doesn’t want the emotional attachment. Mary does soften to Loch some, though.

    In the other WIP, our MC Rafe has a particularly nasty warhorse named Sampson. He’s snappy, irritable, mean,and can snort fire (faerie horse) but loves Rafe. Honestly, I leave the horse stuff to Sarah, ’cause she loves ’em. I’ve barely even seen real horses in person (city girl here!). We also have bunnies that eat gardens, like normal bunnies do, but they snort fire, too (faerie bunnies). Rafe also has war/hunting dogs that are with him pretty much all the time.

    Both stories use animals to help build character. What a character loves and will devote time/attention to tells us a lot about them.

  • quillet

    Oh, Misty, I share your view of those mice. I lived in the country for a few years, and twice they got into the wall of my bedroom. I’m a light sleeper, so that intermittent rustle-nibble-scritch-scratch inspired murderous midnight thoughts.

    I have animals in my WIP, but I’m not sure they serve any higher symbolic purpose — unless I get to count the dragons? They vanished long ago and are now presumed mythical. To most people they’re just a story, but to the MC they symbolize a lost, golden past. Of course, neither view is correct. Both the dragons and the “golden” past will prove darker and more complex than that. So you could say the dragons represent the dangers of nostalgia…or something. (Still thinking. Thanks for making me think about this!)

  • I’ve learned that our animals are very loyal beings and we are just as loyal to them. In my urban fantasy my protag hates animals (or just perfers them on the otherside of the street or behind glass walls she’ll never get to see) but she has to learn how to get along with the creatures because 1) they aren’t going anywhere no natter how many times she sends them to voice mail or threatens to sell them to Mrs. Samson and 2) they’re thete to protect her.
    And our animals can tell us alot about ourselves because they are our best friends. They spend more time with us than anyone elsd. They probably eat better than we do too.

  • To quillet

    How wonderful it is to meet another dragon lover. I have dragons in my YA novel. I’ve always been fascinated by them. They are my second favorite animals. The first are big cats. Sorry but I love my wild cats. 🙂

  • For my WIP, I’m toying with the idea of introducing the MC to a chameleon, an animal she’d never seen before. She becomes enamored with it because she likes the idea of being able to change and blend in–something she is not good at doing. Still figuring out the details of exactly how to do this, though.

  • I haven’t really used animals much beyond flavor and world building, other than the aforementioned horses in the fantasy romance where the group is reunited with them after a time away (and yes, one will fall in book three… (O)_(O) ). Still, I’ve got a lot of things running right now, including song lyrics, so that may change. 😉

  • I appreciated the bunny eating scene, Faith, even though I owned rabbits as a kid, because it was true – if you tamed Beast or cleaned her up she’d just be a stuffed toy.

    Horses show up a good bit in my books – I never outgrew the 12 year old Horses are Magic! stage, but I’ve also spent enough time to know that they are sweaty, smelly, giant beasts who will step on your feet and think you’re giving them a massage when you hit them with a curry brush. Hopefully that makes my horses more real. I want them to always be fundamentally horses even if they can talk or have magic powers or a psychic connection to their rider.

    What I resist is anthropomorphizing animals. I don’t like books where the animals could all be made human and it wouldn’t change the story substantially at all. I never could get into Redwall and I generally walk the other way when a books characters are all animals. Even though I grew up on the Narnian chronicles and treasured fantasies of meeting Reepicheep, as a general rule I have a deep, inarticulate dislike of fantasy books full of cute animals walking around and acting like humans. Except that I’m terribly inconsistent about this rule. I loved Wind in the Willows and still do. Ratty and Mole are two of my all time favorite creatures, Mole especially. And I love the dragons of Pern. Does anyone else experience the same thing? What am I trying to get at here?

  • sagablessed

    In my first WIP the MC had a dog, Hershey, who represented home. Even though the world was ending, MC pulled his car over to grab Hershey some of his favorite treats. It represented hope and caring, and as MC out it, he would make the end of the world wait for his best friend.
    While I have not made animals as central in current WIP, birds or spiders are going to play a part in it. And a cat. For there is no such thing in that world or this one as ‘just a cat’.

  • Sarah and Unicorn, I lovelovelove horses, too. I rode for years when I was a kid, and showed in dressage and over fences. I’d love to go riding again sometime…

    And Sarah, I’m with you on the anthropomorphization of animals. I’m accepting of it in things that feel like faerie tales (like the Chronicles of Narnia) but anything else bothers me. For one thing, animals wouldn’t have the same language as people. I have to think that if you asked a squirrel for the right path out of the forest, you’d spend all day explaining what “out” meant. I’ve got an animal character in Kestrel’s Dance that has to communicate with Kestrel, but he doesn’t talk or use her language in any way. I’m really rather pleased with the solution I came up with.

    And I think we’d all agree that Faith’s Beast doesn’t fall into the anthropomorphized category – she’s not just an animal, but a supernatural creature who has shared Jane’s body and mind for so long that their communication using language makes sense.

  • quillet

    @WaitforHim It’s always great to meet another dragon lover. Dragon lovers unite! 🙂 And hey, no need to apologise for loving big cats best. I love cats too. 😀