Talking About Magic: Talking Animals

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One of my panels at this year’s ConCarolinas was about animal sidekicks in fantasy fiction. We had a great time talking, even though only two of the panelists actually had animals in their books already. (And one other panelist was there because of the sentient man-eating car in his books, but we rolled with it anyway.) I was tickled to be included, because I’m writing an animal sidekick right now, and I have some pretty emphatic feelings on the subject. I generally don’t care for books with talking animals. I was a big fan of Watership Down in the day, but somehow since then I’ve lost my taste for talking critters. Particularly critters who speak in human languages. And I’m not really talking about books with all-animal characters – Erin Hunter’s Warriors (cats) and Seekers (bears), and Katherine Lasky’s Guardians of Ga’hoole (owls) and Wolves of the Beyond (wolves) leap to mind. I understand that there’s not much the writer can do when all the characters are animals. I don’t particularly care for those books, but at least I can justify the animals talking to each other. I’m also not talking about books like Faith’s Jane Yellowrock series, because while Beast is animal-like, she’s more of an extension of Jane than a mere companion. What bothers me are books with mostly human characters, in which animals chatter to their owners in perfect English. We tend to anthropomorphize animals and objects in everyday life, just as a matter of course. Think about it for a second. Who out there has named his car? Puts certain cups next to each other in the cupboard because they’re “friends”? Fusses at her GPS after it insists on a U-turn even though the destination is in sight, on the right? My own sister makes me talk to her dog on the phone, as if the dog has even the slightest idea what’s going on. It’s only natural that writers would take that habit and create animals who talk in their fiction. Unless there’s a reasonable explanation for it, talking animals don’t work for me.

Let’s say a wizard casts a spell to let him communicate with a knight’s horse. Razzledazzle hocuspocus and boom! They’re talking like old pals from way back. Except they shouldn’t have much context in common. It’s a little like travelling with a small child. If someone asks you how you got where you were going, you, the adult, would recount the streets and turns from start to finish. The child will talk about the big balloon man at the car lot, and the flock of birds that flew over the highway and then there was a carnival but Mom wouldn’t let me stop because she said it was dangerous. Both explanations are valid, but they’re from completely different world views.

Back to our wizard. He now has the ability to communicate with the horse, but he should also have to figure out how to ask his questions in ways the horse can even begin to answer. For example, the knight is lost, so the wizard asks the horse where he last saw the knight. If the horse answers like a horse, he’d say something like, “I saw him when he gave me a pat before mounting me this morning.” A literal answer to the question. The horse won’t know how to answer any other way. The wizard sighs, and asks when the horse realized the knight was gone. “When the howling began, we ran to the trees to escape. And then he was gone.” Not much information there. Did he fall off? Did a monster pluck him off the horse’s back? Is he hanging from a tree branch? When horses run in fear, they don’t tend to look behind themselves and the forest is a big place. The wizard has to ask questions that will help the horse explain, and that can get boring for a reader. A savvy writer should have his wizard be aware of the context problem before he ever casts the spell.

You’ve probably read stories in which magical animals learn the language within hours or days. This doesn’t work for me either. Again, let’s use a small child as our example. How fast does a baby learn to speak? My niece is approaching her first birthday, and so far she’s got “da da”, “ma ma” and possibly a version of “thank you” (although we could be wrong on that one, since it’s a bit garbled.) Language takes time. Once someone has a basic handle on a language, there are the idioms to consider. If you’ve ever studied another human language, think back on how bizarre it was to translate a simple idiom. You can’t say “You’re as cute as a bug’s ear” in French to a French child, because even though the words are correct, the meaning isn’t shared between cultures, and you’re liable to get a slapped cheek from the child’s insulted mother. Sure, magic could alleviate all that, but you’re still left with a creature whose physical body is not designed to make noises like that at all. Again, a savvy writer who’s desperate to have a talking animal should at least make him hard to understand.

I’m working on a critter companion in my WIP, and for a long time, he kept bothering me. I finally realized that I was breaking all my own rules. He was talking in a human language, with all the nuances and idioms as if he’d been born to it. I went back and removed all of that, designing a new way for him to communicate. And even though that took a long time, I’m so much happier. I don’t like my machines to talk to me, and I really don’t want my animals to talk either. Now I need to go shake a finger at my air conditioner until it starts behaving.

** Next Tuesday we’ll be celebrating the paperback release of A J Hartley’s Act of Will, so he’ll be posting on Tuesday instead of me! Have fun!

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21 comments to Talking About Magic: Talking Animals

  • Mikaela

    Really intresting post, Misty.
    The closest I have is Little John in the WIP I am currently revising, but he is turned into a wolf by magic. Still, it is a challenge to make him wolf-like.

    Oh, and I like the way Yasmine Galenorn does it. Throughout her Otherworlds books you can follow how Maggie, a gargoyle, developes. No one is really sure if she will learn to talk or not in the future.

  • Beatriz

    Parker approves of this post. 😉

  • I can accept talking animals–in part because the suspension of disbelief for which we are being asked is so obviously out in left field–far better than I can fantasy novels wherein everyone on the continent speaks the same dialect, or SF stories where the entire galaxy speaks English. (Can you say SG-1?) And anyone who knows the least bit about linguistics and translation knows that a baloney-science invention like a Universal Translator wouldn’t be good for anything beyond asking directions to the bathroom. For that matter, translate “bathroom” literally into just about any other language on Earth and see how well you’re understood.

    I’d love to see a talk-to-animals spell work the way you’ve described, but I never have and frankly don’t expect to, because writers tend not to think critically about how changes they make propagate through their created reality. It isn’t easy (Who would have predicted, for instance, that mass production of the automobile would lead to a complete rewrite of sexual mores?), but the payoff is enormous when it’s done right. One tiny change in turn changes everything else–but I constantly read books and stories where things are changed massively, but everyone still has the world view of the late-twentieth-century middle class.

  • While talking animals don’t bother me (at least, in stories — the real ones are a darn nuisance), I think it becomes another matter of balance. Aliens are the same way. If we made a truly alien creature, the entire story would be about trying to communicate with it. That would make a great story but perhaps not the one the author wants to tell. Same goes for animals. Same goes for magic, now that I think about it. We expect the reader to believe and we do our best to aid that, but in the end, either the reader suspends disbelief or she doesn’t. We can’t go around “proving” the existence of magic every single time we want to write about it. So, while I totally understand your personal dislike of talking animals, and I do think you’ve got the makings of a great character and/or story regarding it, I also understand why we all just take a big swig of “believe me” juice when we read anthropomorphic tales. Sometimes it’s just necessary.

  • My first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, used a magic system based on a psychic bond formed between an avian familiar and a mage. The familiars were usually hawks and owls and bird and mage became very close. But they communicated through imagery, through shared awareness of what they were seeing and hearing. A mage might pseak a soothing word to his familiar, but mostly the communication was handled via emotion and sensory experience. All this by way of saying, yeah, I totally agree with you. I deal pretty well with books where the characters are critters. I LOVED Watership Down. And my younger daughter loved the Redwall books. But basically writing a fantasy version of Mister Ed just doesn’t work for me.

  • I think it depends on your definition of “talking animals”. I definitely don’t like the idea of animals with human voices, as in those who have completely human vocal cords and talk like they’re human and anyone can understand them. I am willing to suspend disbelief for other communication, such as telepathy. As for whether they communicate in English, it makes more sense for them to not communicate in perfect sentences, unless they’re a creature who’s been around long enough to learn otherwise.

    And then it depends on your definition of “animals”. Another thing that makes it “more okay”, IMHO, is when the creatures are simply magical beings who have taken animal form, or animals that represent or speak for guiding spirits or deities. Then there’s something else at work. But if the animal in question is going to be a sarcastic cat who talks like your buddy from the tavern and has the equivalent human intelligence, then I’d be a little more iffy. Unless he really *was* your buddy from the tavern who’d been turned into a cat.

    I liked how Mindy handled it with her Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft series. The familiars were humans with animal-like qualities. And Tamora Pierce did an okay job with the Immortals series because the main character could talk specifically to animals, and over time, the ones who hung out with her became smarter.

    But Stuart makes a good point – this is fantasy, not sci-fi. If I spent the entire time focused on the science of how it would work logically, then the story would suffer. Talking animals, in one way or another, is a trope, and some suspension of disbelief is expected.

    (I do speak from horrible, horrible experience. As a teenager I had a story where all the mages had housecat familiars who spoke like normal humans. Because I like cats, that’s why. And I was a teenage girl. 😉 They communcated telepathically, which lessens the blow a teeny tiny bit, but they still weren’t very useful. They were just crutches, useful little feline plot devices. And then I kept forgetting to include them in scenes where they weren’t needed and if I ever go back to that story, the kitties will be the first to go.)

  • I don’t mind talking animals, actually. They’ve never bothered me. I can’t remember many I’ve stumbled across, so maybe I haven’t read certain fantasy, or maybe they just didn’t make much of an impact. I’m fond of Gaspode in Pratchett. he’s a normal stray who slept too often near the High Energy Magic Building at the Magic University, so he eventually learned to talk and understand language. He uses it to get food by saying “woof woof. give the doggie a bone. woof.” And people know dogs can’t talk, so they think they thought it, and give him the bone.

    But, if suddenly a spell happened and my cats could understand English and speak it, I’d expect them to know it, at least a little. Because that’s what I speak to them all the time. They’ve been hearing it for years and years and years (depending on their age. I mean my 19 year old cat should have been able to write a dissertation… goodness knows I talked to her about mine enough!) So, I guess I’m not sure that they’d have a hard time learning a language. I mean, my cats already know some words. “Kitty!” and “NO!” How much harder can “would you please tell me the location of the disembodied spirit haunting my house” be? 😉

  • Sarah

    As a child I could never get into the heroic animal books – Watership Down, Redwall, Tailchaser’s Song, etc. They just left me uninterested, even though I was a child who would read anything I got my hands on. I still can’t explain why to the people who tell me they loved these books. On the other hand I didn’t have a problem with blue eyed psychic horse companions in the Herald Mage series. Go figure.

    I don’t have a problem with animals talking, via whatever magical/world building explanation is offered so long as it’s plausible within the world of the story. I prefer, however, that the animal still be an animal. In my WIP one of my characters talks to crows. The crows don’t speak English – the character speaks crow and she has to adjust to the crows’ idioms. For example crows have a limited sense of time. They have excellent visual memory (real crows) and sense of direction, but in my book the crows can’t tell my MC what time something happened if it was more than a day ago. They understand gradations of time from dawn to dusk and nest season vs flocking season, but all the rest of history and future are “in the before time” and “soon” or “maybe soon” depending on whether they think something is likely to be happening. I don’t mind animals being funny, I just don’t want them to become twee. That’s when I start to dislike a book.

  • I had a real problem with this very thing when creating the Jane Yellowrock series, Misty. I wanted a Less human, less English speach pattern for Beast. I wanted Beast to think of herself in terms of the third person, so her self-awreness would be limited. This gave me the: *Beast hungy. Wants deer,* speech pattern. But it came out too, *Me Tarzan, you Cheeta.* Too grunting-stoneage.

    With my editor’s encouragement, I found a limited first person voice for her, which means I write in First Person POV for both Jane and Beast, and use the concept that they each gained something from the other when they merged. Beast gained language, though with a skewed syntax, and the ability to reason at a higher level. Jane gained faster reflexes, better auditory and olefactory senses. Somehow the language system now works. But it’s a real challenge to maintain.

  • PS — Language requires necessity/survival to develop and the proper brain shape and structure. Not just a spell.

    My first Pomerainian had an understanding of 250 words, and understood when I’d recombine them into new meanings.

    And he could talk. But only one word. The rest was sign language. Seriously. The word? Out. Pronounced, “Oooouuuuuu. Oooouuuuu.” Necessity…

    Sign language? Battering his bowl for food. Battering his other bowl for water. Scratching on the door when the word didn’t get my attention quickly enough. He had his ways to tell me what he wanted. Had he possessed the ability to speak English, I think he would have only bothered with four or five words. Again — necessity.

  • I’m more in the camp with Stuart. I’m far more inclined to suspend disbelief as far as magic and ultra-tech goes, as long as it’s consistent every time. Take a car to the 1700s as an example of what may not work at all now that might 300 years from now when science and technology has further evolved. I refuse to believe that we’re at the pinnacle of our understanding of how things work. This is why I have no problem with lightsabers. Just because we can’t get them to work now doesn’t mean that they can’t exist in the future. 300 years ago we woulda thought vehicles that moved themselves without being pulled by an animal was pretty impossible too. A modern tank in medieval times would probably almost seem like magic.

    And as magic goes, far as I’m concerned, it’s magic. If the spell translates as well as allows communication that’s fine by me as long as it’s done consistently in the story. I don’t need to know the how’s of why it works, as long as the author does and uses it the same way every time. If “white-bright-high-in-black-dead-old-blood-on-wind” becomes “I smelled something dead nearby last night when the full moon was high in the sky” that’s all good. If the wizard instead wants to tell me what that means, that’s good too. As long as I, the reader, don’t have to do the translating. That could get tedious to read and follow. Faith does a very good job with Beast-speak though. I’ve never found myself going, “whu…?” However, Beast and Jane are also linked mentally so concepts are shared more easily between them, and as a result, us. I almost feel like an animal may be even more enigmatic and almost simple than Beast is. Do they even know the concept of scent or taste or is it just something they do without knowing in English words how to describe that? How do you write that in English so that it can be understood by the readers? Back before spoken language we likely would have actually breathed in exaggeratedly through our noses to show someone that we were smelling something on the wind, though we had no word for that. Would animals be the same way? Would the spell do nothing more than allow the wizard to understand in animal terms the animal’s own communication abilities? The wolf sniffs the air, sneezes, coughs and growls in a menacing tone, then whuffs. The wizard reads this with the spell as the wolf smelled something bad/distasteful/dead on the wind that made it frightened or angry. I could see that communication also very possible.

    I do agree that talking animals who don’t have the mouth for it should be more difficult to understand, unless again, the magic is doing the translating. I guess for me it just depends on how they’re doing the talking. This would also go back to an earlier discussion of putting too much language inflection or accent in your prose so that it becomes a chore to read. A dog may not be quite able to move their mouths like humans do, but it could get annoying to read, “Yeowu’ll hap thoo gow owerr pfatht wooaer” to find out that the dog is telling you that you have to go over the fast moving water to pick up the scent again (least, that’s as close as I figure a dog could speak English based on the sounds our dog makes and the way their mouth seems to move, but I could be wrong).

    And as far as everyone speaking a common tongue in a story, this poses another issue altogether taken to its extreme. Who’s to say the people in the fantasy novel are speaking English at all? However, if it isn’t written that way, could we even read it? They could be speaking Aldislaeran, which is the common trading tongue for the whole of the continent of Brin, but for convenience sake, since we’re in their heads and stories we should be able to understand it in our own language. However, I do like the occasional language barrier in a tale. Enemy Mine was a fun example as far as movies go where the two aliens had to learn each other’s language if they hoped to help each other survive. Then again, that was the focus of half of the movie. It could be done well in novels too, as long as we got to see in English what’s going through the alien’s head too in either limited or omniscient perspective. In fact, that might be a fun way to show the differences in concepts. This is a lot harder to do in a TV series where you have to have your single story arc plot finished in one hour instead of 300 or so pages.

    Okay…I’m rambling and looking slightly incoherent and all over the board, so I better quit.

  • This reminds me of the panel – folks from every side of the question had great things to say! Thanks for all the comments, whether you agree with me or not. My opinion about the critters is entirely personal. Luckily for the writers of such things, everyone doesn’t agree with me. And luckily for me, some folks write exactly the way I like it. Isn’t it fun?

  • Alan Kellogg

    Faith points out something vital here, the fact that dogs learn to understand a good sized vocabulary. Even to say a few words not withstanding the physical barriers. Cats too have a vocabulary, this time of some 50 words or so, and a few learn to say “hello” or other words.

    The problem is not with vocabulary, but personality. Horses have an overactive imagination, seeing dangers that aren’t there. Dogs are toddlers. Happy, inquisitive, bloody minded toddlers, but toddlers. Cats are fanged infants. It helps to know an animal’s basic personality, and that is shaped at the core by the animal’s species.

    Take cattle for example. Phlegmatic by nature, but also intensely curious. Yearling and adolescent bulls will gang up to check out something knew. They form bovine gangs and get a bit rowdy at times. Adult cows can be flirtatious, grumpy, or even standoffish, but all are stolid, solid citizens of conservative bent.

    So what’s the most likely result should one cast a communication spell on one’s cat. One would find one’s self with an animal that is needy, demanding, flirty, and affectionate. And animal who’s concerns have to do with security, comfort, and buttering up humans. With an undercurrent of predation and dark, mysterious places.

    “There were mousies, they tasted good. Caught a rat, but he bit me so I let him go. The bad wizard?

    “Oh, he was mean. So I rubbed against him until he stopped being so mean. He let me listen as he talked with his rats. They scared me until he showed me how gentle they can be. We played a bit and that was fun.

    “His plans? He said he’d talk with you about his plans, and he wants to know when you’ll be coming over to visit. He thinks Sunday is a good day, and he can cook up something nice. He said he’ll have something nice for me.

    “We gonna cuddle now? I like it when we cuddle. You hand lick my fur while I make bread, and I get to mouth your hands and forearms. He likes to cuddle too. He showed me what rats are made of as we cuddled, that was neat. Can you show me what birds are made of?”

  • mudepoz

    May I chime in here? I’m a professional dog trainer. By nature, we learn not only to read our dogs, but the dogs learn how to read us. It doesn’t take a great leap of faith (hehehe) to have a dog ‘speak’. They learn language very easily. The problem is when humans try to learn dogspeak.

    I’ve watched people train chickens, horses, rabbits and cats. They learn each other. In these cases, it isn’t language that is shared, but an understanding of the other being. Pretty amazing to partner with another species.

    Temple Grandin earned her PhD based on her studies that autistic humans think like animals, in pictures.

    So, when I played with a familiar, I had them think in pictures. Then I decided it was easier to write recipes and read about animals that speak.

  • […] blog: ♣ Stuart Jaffe explains how to develop characters in very little space, ♣ Misty Massey tackles talking animals (well… she tackles the subject of writing about them), and ♣ David B. Coe posts part X of […]

  • The specific problem I have is with animals who speak in perfect English (or whatever human language). Mister Ed, as David mentioned, is a perfect example.

    Then again, lots of people did like him, so clearly one size does not fit all. 😀

  • mudepoz

    They DON’T? *Scratches head* But Mickey does. And so does Minnie. In fact, I think the ONLY one that doesn’t is Pluto. Jeez, shatter my illusions.

    The only reason animals that do have the ability to communicate don’t is only physical. Fix that limitation and I would believe it. The rescue cockatiels in the greenhouse seem to know what words work in what situations. They sound like munchkins, but they only whistle at females, and they insist on sunflower seeds if you walk past the bucket.

    If you’ve ever seen a frustrated border collie at an agility trial, they are doing their damnedest to tell their human how many mistakes said human made.

    I’m a very gullible reader, so you can feed me just about anything. Unless you don’t support the world building, that will toss me out like I’m on a trampoline.

    Mud, a very avid reader.

  • I know someone who taught their parrot to greet people at the door. As they came in, the parrot would walk up to them with this bold, almost belligerent swagger, look up at them to meet their eyes and say, “I can talk. Can you fly?”

  • mudepoz

    Then again, you did say it didn’t work for you. Me, I’m easy.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Very nice post, Misty. I entirely agree with you.

    I love when the animals don’t talk like us.

    Fish: “Hi, Aquaman!”
    Aquaman: “Seen any Crime?”
    Fish: “Hi, Aquaman!”
    Aquaman. “Any trouble in the sea?”
    Fish: “Hi, Aquaman!”

    I don’t recall where this came from, but my kids quote it all the time. They love the idea that talking to fish really is not a big help in life (despite what their father, an Aquaman fan, claimes.)

    I have talking animals in all my books, now that I think about it, but nearly all of them are not animals. They are supernatural creatures in animal form. Still, I try to have them talk in a distinct manner that reminds me of their species.

    I do have a scene where a fairy talks to real birds. The birds are only concerned with finding food and are no help.

  • I can’t say I’m bothered by talking animals. I would be less concerned about it if there were communication problems and some kind of empathetic bond to help the communication.

    In the Belgariad books, Garion and Belgarath shapechange into wolves. Garion is overcome with primal urges the longer he’s a wolf and although they can communicate to each other because they are both really humans, they have a limited understanding of the animal kingdom and how to communicate with other wolves. Still, there is understanding there, like pointed out in above posts.

    I’m willing to accept that animals can communicate, just not as A+ English majors. However, if the author can find a way to make it work for the story, I’ll give most stories the initial suspension of disbelief.