Critters in Fantasy

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As you’ve heard by now, the vast majority of the Magical Words team spent Labor Day weekend in Atlanta with 52,000 of our closest friends.  DragonCon is a humongous spec-fic con featuring film, television, literature, art, comic, music and costuming guests and experts sharing their knowledge and opinions with fans.  You can go to panels, have photos taken with actors and buy your favorite author’s books all in the course of a single day.  On Friday I served on a panel called “Talking Cats and Clever Rats”, about animals in our stories and what their presence means. 

If you live in a city, you probably don’t see animals around too often, besides the occasional flock of pigeons or the cockroach that freezes on the kitchen floor when you turn on the light at 2 am.  But they’re around.  A story without animals is lacking something important – that spark of the earth’s life that you may not notice but that’s always in the back of your awareness.  My writing desk sits in front of a window that looks over my back yard, and sometimes when I’m sitting here quietly in the evening, suddenly I’ll glance out the window and see rabbits and deer having a nice graze.  When I was a kid, I lived within yards of a tidal marsh, and I saw more frogs and herons and alligators than I can even recall.  Animals are all around our real lives, and they deserve a spot in our imaginary ones as well.  Whether you populate your story with real-world animals or fantastic creatures, they need to be there.

Not only do animals grant a certain realism to your fiction, they also provide opportunities for your characters to show their true selves.  There’s a maxim I see shared on Facebook all the time, usually added to a photo of a big-eyed puppy or a fluffy kitten – “You can easily judge a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”   If none of your characters suspect your bad guy is bad, you can drop an excellent hint by writing a few sentences in which he’s witnessed kicking a stray dog just because it was close to him.  On the other hand, if nobody trusts your hero, let him rescue a cat from drowning when he thought no one was looking.  When your main character has an animal companion, the reader’s perception of that character is greatly influenced by that relationship.  In Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, for example, Atticus O’Sullivan is the last of the Druids, a man of great age and power.  He’s lived so long that there’s nothing and no one he can’t walk away from.  His house, his collection of rare magical tomes…it’s all stuff to him.  Useful, valuable, but not worth dying over.  He can even leave behind people who’ve become important in his life, wishing them well as he goes.  But when his Irish wolfhound, Oberon, is threatened in any way, Atticus will move heaven and earth to protect him.  That dedication to his animal companion connects Atticus to the reader in a way that his power never could.  

Are there animals in your stories?  What kind?  Why are they there?  Let’s talk.

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26 comments to Critters in Fantasy

  • sagablessed

    I LOVE this post. Why, because I am an animal person, and a story that has only humans or humanoids is flat for me. Even Star Trek had targs, Spot, and a beagle.
    My first WIP the MC had a dog. Even though the world was going to end, MC stopped at a pet store to get treats for Hershey. I might add, little things like a puppy tongue up the nose; checking or not checking on the food dish, or just watching animals can add depth to a character.
    In my current WIP on character is a poet, but he can imitate any birdsong he hears only once and it makes him happy. Does it really afect the plot? No, but gives a sense of what he is about.

  • sagablessed

    Sorry for typos. My keyboard is being a butt-head today.

  • I try to make up animals and creatures in my fantasy works, but keep them similar enough in name that readers can relate them to real world critters. I tend to do the same with drinks or produce or other such things. Still, I do keep some facets of the real world as well. I don’t tend to change horses much and I keep the name, for example. As far as interactions of the characters, my epic fantasy in particular, my heroes have horses they found near a ransacked guard station in book one, the horses had slipped loose and ran when creatures attacked and killed the guards. These horses were with the group the entire book, just about, and became sort of fixtures in their lives. At the end of book one they lose those horses, having given them to someone before entering a place the horses couldn’t go because they didn’t know if they’d meet again and then weren’t able to get back to them. They’re given other horses in book two, but both the hero and heroine mentally lament the loss of their other mounts, thinking about how much they’d been through with the other steeds and how much better they’d react to situations under fire. It’s somewhat like a family reunion when they encounter the man they gave them to and find he’d kept them, in case they returned.

    I think there’s just some universal law that dogs, cats, cows, horses, and some varieties of trees just grow on every planet that supports life. 😉 There was actually an Outer Limits episode where someone made some off-hand remark about that, how the strongest and fittest trees tend to grow throughout all the worlds when someone wondered why they were passing through a bunch of oak trees. I guess the writer or director musta wanted to explain it away, in case someone noticed they weren’t “alien” trees. 😉

  • Deb S

    I love animals in real life and fiction. They can definitely help the reader connect emotionally. In fact, one of my favorite characters was the MC’s dog in The Knife of Never Letting Go. He was loyal, heroic, and oh yeah, chatty.

  • Hmm. I think I do have animals feature in most of my stories (except there were none in one I wrote set in cyberspace… but hey, it was cyberspace). In my current WIP I’ve got several made-up creatures which feature prominently throughout the story, one of which plays a very important plot-related role. I’ve got a few that are monstrous abominations invented for the puprose of showing how dangerous the world is, one that’s a non-horse filling in a horse-like role (in an environment that is not particularly hospitable to horses), and one in particular (the one that ended up playing a significant plot role) that invented primarily because it seemed like a cool idea.

    I also have a real soft-spot for traditional mythical fantasy critters (whether they be intelligent or no), such as dragons, unicorns, griffons, and so on.

    I’ve recently wondered to myself why more Epic Fantasy heroes aren’t pet-owners, and then resolved to make the main character in another story I’ve been working on a pet-owner.

  • I guess Beast must count. 🙂

    But I can add the Pom in Gwen’s work, the (Somewhat paranormal) thriller False Truths. I adored that dog. Less than ten pounds of fierce freedom-seeking, alone and lost in New Orleans. Then, later, barking at gators in the swamp below the house. My character rescued the dog, of course.

  • adamgaylord

    I couldn’t agree more. Stories always benefit from an animal or two. I even did a guest-post on that very subject not long ago:

    http://strandsofpattern.blogspot.com/2012/08/august-is-awesome-because-of-adam.html

  • Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series has an interesting creature companion sorta deal I really liked. If you’ve never looked those up, they’re pretty good, IMO.

  • Unicorn

    Speaking as somebody sitting in the middle of a dairy farm, smelling faintly of cows and covered in dog hair, I confess to being an animal lover. It took months of writing before humans even began to figure in my early stories.
    Because most of my stories are set in something resembling medieval Europe, there are naturally a lot of horses running around. Probably more horses than strictly necessary. Instead of being simple ways of getting around, in my stories, horses are characters in themselves. They’re not human, but they have personalities, backstories, quirks, just like the real horses that I share my own life with. And I can’t help but think that a basic understanding of horse care and riding can only add to my story, because, like a lot of epic heroes, my protagonists spend a lot of time in the saddle. Few things annoy me more than horses written badly. I don’t care how beautifully you describe it; if your hero’s valiant steed laps water like a dog or wears “reins” on its head and a “belly strap” holding its saddle in place, I’m going to be irritated. You don’t need to be a qualified riding instructor, but I do appreciate stories where the writer has done a little research into horses.

  • In my YA fantasy, I have three animals who are essentially spirit guides / avatars of the deity my MC serves, sent to convince her to take a certain path. All three of them can be affectionate, even the one who acts like an dick most of the time, when she really needs it. I’d say it shows her softer side.

    I don’t have any in my UF. But thank you, Misty, because that gives me an idea … mwahaha. 😉

  • Megan B.

    Great topic! It made me think about animals in my own work, and I realized that they figure prominently. Like many folks here, I’m an animal lover. And I’ve used many mythical creatures in my writing, including a dragon, a griffin and a phoenix. You are right, animals add a vital layer of realism to a world, and a certain spark of life.

  • In my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, the mages sourced their magical powers in their psychic connection to birds of prey that served as their familiars. Ever since then, every book I write has some mention of a hawk or owl, sort of as a nod to that series that gave me my start. Search through my work — even the ROBIN HOOD novelization. There’s a raptor or owl in every one.

  • As the young son of screen-writing maven Scott Myers said regarding how to write fiction, “Go into the story, and find the animals.”

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I recently realized that three separate male bad-guys in my WIP are cat owners. It’s a weird, lop-sided sort of thing that I’m presently not sure what to do with. However, I’ve avoided including horses in the world because they don’t feel necessary to the story (a restricted geographical range feels a bit more appropriate) and I myself am pretty unfamiliar with them. I’ve stuck with carts and oxen for most of the distance transport (not that I’m familiar with those either, of course…), so, where there are roads, there are oxen (a nice, vague term, meaning large animals bred and *trained* for manual labor). Similarly, I’ve been avoiding oaks since a) they seem to be in every traditional fantasy that ever existed, and b) I am completely unfamiliar with them, having grown up in Montana where there aren’t any.

    In the story I want to write next, the MC is a trapper, and that’s going to require a lot of research and attention to make sure I’ve got all of the animals appropriately incorporated into the world and the story. And your point, Misty, is a very good one, that how that MC treats those animals very specifically will likely have a strong impact on how well readers will respond to him. Thanks for the reminder. 😀

  • rebnatan

    My main character kills a dog in the first chapter, and eats some of it raw. Another character recalls extracting the brain from a living dog. In a different part of the book, puppies are used for bait.
    My story is ethno-fantasy, where people have different attitudes towards animals. In modern western society, alienated from nature, we elevate animals into playthings and family.

  • Cindy

    rebnatan,
    Are you sure you want to alienate all the potential readers that love dogs?

  • rebnatan

    Dog lovers are a concern. My story doesn’t leave readers warm and comfy. I have personally never eaten dog meat, and never would. Nor do I recommend doing the things my characters do.

  • quillet

    I love this post, and I love animals. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote — except I just have to point out, devil’s-advocate-style, that “Nice to Animals” doesn’t necessarily equal “Good Person.” In real life, some psychopaths can’t feel empathy for humans but *do* love (even fixate on) a pet. The Silence of the Lambs makes good use of this idea with the serial killer’s little dog. …And of course Dr Evil has his cat! 😉

    I’m with Unicorn in hating it when writers get horses wrong, especially when they write them like some sort of motorcycle: just climb on in the morning and off you go. Sheesh, a little research would quickly fix this. Animals have personalities, and horses are no exception!

    I just want to say to rebnatan: lots of people who will blithely read about people being horribly killed simply *cannot* take it when a fictitious animal is harmed. They will stop reading. Books will be hurled at walls. I’m not saying you can’t do this, but be aware that it may be problematic.

    …And now I’m off to cuddle my cat. (Without raising my pinkie. And she has fur, honest.)

  • OakandAsh

    A coyote x werewolf offspring seems to have crept in to my stories and isn’t leaving any time soon 🙂

  • Razziecat

    I’ve never done much with animals in stories, even though I love them. Horses, of course, in fantasy, as well as dogs, cats, birds, etc., as part of the background. Now that I think about it, I use them more in my space opera stuff, as vermin or predators that give the characters a hard time 😉

    If I ever write an urban fantasy, there will definitely be animals. I live in a city, and we have not only birds and squirrels, but also rats (probably the most adaptable critter on earth), rabbits, woodchucks, the occasional deer, and skunks.

  • I have animals in pretty much all my stories and for a lot of reasons you’ve already pointed out. They really help show a side of your MC that they might not show to others. I always think how my dad’s a good explain of this. He’s a manly man who doesn’t share his thoughts often, but when I was a kid, if he doesn’t think anyone is looking he’d get down on the ground with our bichon frise (a white, frilly, girlish dog) and act all lovey-dovey with him. When our dog passed away, he balled like a child — which is the only time in my entire life I’ve ever seen him cry. Animals have the power to bring out a completely different side of someone.

  • ajp88

    I had a vivid scene come to me of some heated conversation between two faceless, formless characters with opposing views debating existentialism. In it, somehow, I saw one unknown character prove his point about the lack of importance in life by taking the other’s small dog in his gauntleted hand and crushing it.

    So, I went back, created one character, decided which of my main POVs should have the dog and went back to introduce it in earlier chapters, and I’m slowly building to that scene, introducing little annoyances that would irk the man who’s not so animal friendly, like the dog’s tendency to piss on his boots. It’s going to be miserable when I come to it; he reminds me so much of my fifteen year old Jack Russell (intentional) and I think that I must be exploring the looming knowledge that we’ll have to put him down soon in my fiction.

  • rebnatan

    quillet, you are absolutely right. People often worry about animals more than people, and not just in fiction. PETA can’t tell the difference between them.
    I enjoy violent films, TV, etc. Spartacus, Game of Thrones…
    But when I see a woman being molested I have to turn away.
    That didn’t stop me though from having a gang-rape in my novel. The victim gets revenge, though.

  • Rebnatan, if that’s the way dogs are used in your story’s culture, then I see no problem thematically. Granted you may limit your audience a bit, but if the story’s good enough, readers will be able to accept the harshness of your world for its sake.

    Personally I’m not comfortable with animal cruelty or sexual assault in my entertainment. I haven’t been able to watch ‘A Clockwork Orange’ more than once, because of the Singing in the Rain scene. It’s still an extraordinary piece of film, though. The message would have been lost with a less violent script.

  • Atticus aside, the uses of animals could be a little different. As you mention, animals of various sorts are omnipresent in our lives, which isn’t a point I’d considered before about fantasy, but couldn’t this then be used to represent the otherness of a place? in the same way that Mars is a fantastic wilderness (now backed up with pictures!), using the lack of animals to enhance that strangeness seems like a very powerful writing tool when used properly.

    Using them properly is the key; using them purely as symptomatic of a character’s personality to drop a hint as you put it seems wrong to me. If he’s going to be outed in the end, why not just go with the shock value of the actual reveal, rather than doing something that leaves a sense of foreboding that will lessen that impact? But that might just be my hatred of narrative conventions coming out again.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  • rebnatan

    Misty, to me the issues are whether you’re condoning the cruelty or assault, and whether or not it’s gratuitous. My MC struggles to help her people survive, without becoming savages like the people who gang-raped her. On the other hand, my character who kills and eats part of a dog condemns those who can’t tell the difference between animals and people.
    Most of the brutality in my book is adapted from historical events or ethnography. In one scene my MC mutilates one of her rapists. I subsequently read of a woman on trial in the Balkans for mutilating a rapist in the exact same manner.

    I can’t watch ‘A Clockwork Orange’ either.