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!