In a previous post on this subject, I gave some tips for creating convincing and relatable creatures to populate a fantasy or sci-fi world. In this post, I will continue in that vein, but I will come at it from a slightly different view – that is, using animals as characters in your story.
This post is not about creating fantastic new monsters or magical animals, though I might do a post on that later. This is about using familiar, “real” animals as sentient characters or races. While the practice of having sentient, anthropomorphized animals in fantasy is not especially common – except perhaps in children’s books – it can be a valid fantasy storytelling element even in YA or adult fiction.
In my previous post about creating fantasy races, I emphasized two key points in creating believable creatures: elements that make them human, and elements that make them non-human. Both, I believe, are necessary to create convincing, well-rounded fantasy creatures.
The non-human element is probably obvious – you as a writer are seeking something different, something besides just another fantasy kingdom filled with humans. Whether they are Klingons or Elves, the “otherness” aspect is part of the point of fantasy.
But equally important is the human element. There must be some way for the human reader – if not the human characters – to relate to and understand this magical race of “other” in your story. Some common ground should be there – even if the point of your story is the search for that common ground. You can write about Klingons all day long, but always remember that your readers are human.
So how does this work if you want to imbue real animals with magic and use them as the “other,” the alien race? To illustrate how this can be done, I’ll use examples from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. (While both of these series might be considered YA or even children’s literature, they are stories that are complex and mature enough to be enjoyed by adults).
What are the qualities that make them non-human?
In my previous post about creating fantasy species, I discussed three main categories to consider: physical traits, emotions or mindset of the species, and the general culture.
In the Narnia books, there are plenty of non-human creatures – and some of the most non-human of all are the Talking Beasts. The badgers, bears, mice, and dogs that have human speech and mannerisms are perhaps more alien than the fauns and centaurs and gryphons. Though they live in harmony with humans, they are very much non-human.
The physical is the most obvious, of course. Even though some Talking Beasts can walk on their hind legs and wield tools (like the heroic mouse Reepicheep), they are very much animal in appearance and behavior. No cartoony animals in cute clothes in these stories. Each species still behaves according to their animal nature as far as attitude and mindset – the fiercely loyal dogs, jittery hyper squirrels, gentle and aloof deer.
While the humans fight wars, voice their opinions, and rage against Aslan in the name of free will and progress, the Talking Beasts don’t change. Their steadiness of behavior and belief sets them apart from every other sentient race in Narnia.
They love and respect the humans, but the Talking Beasts are quick to remind everyone that they are most definitely not human, and are not trying to be in any way. The Talking Beasts are proud of their Otherness. The magic of Narnia makes them more than mere animals, but they never will be human – and they want to keep it that way.
What are the qualities that make them human?
As I mentioned before, some human elements are needed in your magical animal race if you want your human readers to relate to them at all. Even if the “otherness” is part of the point of your story, having at least some common ground can help to emphasize all the elements that make them non-human.
In Philip Pullman’s books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), the Panserbjørne (Armored Bears or Ice Bears) are at first appearance very animalistic and “other.” These Bears tend to shun human contact, but they are master craftsmen and metal workers. Their physical dwellings and societal structure are more human than animal, with their castles, metal armor, and sense of honor.
The Ice Bears, though emphasized as different and “other,” experience the very human emotions of fear and shame, hatred and love. The Bears have a king and their own laws for their kingdom. Almost the opposite of the animals in Narnia, who live in their natural habitats in the wilderness, the Ice Bears depend on their created laws and their skill with tools to hold their society together.
While the Bears and the humans have reluctant contact at best, until the plot of the story forces them together, the two species have more in common than each one believes at first. The Bears are animals and the Bears are Other, but just like humans, they hate and love and will fight to preserve their world.
Animals as sentient races and important characters can be a valid storytelling element for YA and adult fantasy, I believe, as shown by these examples. Always key is the human element, and the non-human element.Whether it’s a sword-wielding mouse, an armored polar bear, or some other animal, choose your beast and go create some magic.