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Of Mice that Talk like Men: The Joy, and Danger, of Writing Anthropomorphic Fiction

As a kid, I must have read Richard Adams’ Watership Down seven or eight times. The novel is a saga of refugee rabbits fleeing their destroyed home for a new one. The rabbits are much like people, with different characters, a social order, politics and even their own language.

Animals dominate children’s fiction, but they have a place in serious, purely adult fiction too. Animal Farm is perhaps the best-known anthropomorphic work of fiction meant for adults. Duncton Wood by William Horwood, a tale about moles, matches Watership Down in its epic, historical tone.

My novel, To Follow Elephants (Stormbird Press), has both human and elephant characters. Though the elephants “talk” to each other, but never to the human characters, their narratives intersect and affect each other. I divided the narratives by chapter — in some, you see the human story; in others, you see from the elephants’ point of view.

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As an author, using animals as characters who act human can open doors to creating a satisfying story, because it provides a wealth of creative freedom. Your animals can have their own social structure and language you create (I still remember when a rabbit exclaimed “silflay hraka!” in Watership Down). You can invent their history or religion. My elephants tell their children their origin story that is, in an elephantine way, nearly identical to the religious tales of an African woman from the same region in Africa. In that regard, it is very much like writing in the fantasy genre.

Your only limits are the facts most readers already know about the animal you choose. If you write a tale (no pun intended) about horses, for instance, you will probably not choose to describe horses that dig burrows or build log cabins, because real horses don’t, and you may lose the reader if you try. Of course, real horses don’t talk either, so if you can pull it off, go wherever your creative mind leads you. Generally, though, limits help frame a story and guide the reader. You don’t want to scare your readers off by baffling them or making them stop believing.

Describing the inner world of animals — how they actually behave and what their environment is like in reality — can intrigue readers who may not know the details. To Follow Elephants, for instance, is entirely based on actual elephant behavior and biology. I merely added what they might say to each other if they could communicate with human-like language.

You can take anthropomorphic fiction to a new level by finding ways that your animals are already human-like and incorporating them. For example, in my novel the elephants mourn their dead by visiting the bones of their ancestors, something biologists have observed in real elephants. That’s an amazing behavior that reveals a strong connection between elephants and people. I don’t know if any other animal mourns its dead like that, long after the bones are bleached in the sun.

But writing about animals as if they are people for grownups to read also can be hazardous.

As I mentioned, getting too fanciful with your animals can turn off readers or make them feel like they are reading a children’s book. If the animals don’t sound authentic or dignified, giving them words could backfire and they might sound silly. Again, this is a place where the style of the fantasy genre, in which characters often speak seriously and purposefully — because the stakes are so high in a fantasy plot — may work. My elephants “speak” and think in a formal, grand dialect, almost like the British-influenced English that many Africans use. For instance, the matriarch elephant, First Grandmother, tells a youngster she is leading to a place that is part of their origin myth:

“This is the place where we were created,” she told them in the dim light of the cave. “This is where the very first First Grandmother bore her nine daughters and led them out into the world, the ones who were the first mothers to all the elephants. They are the daughters who summoned nine bulls here to create the nine families of elephants that live today, including ours.”

“This is where you came from.”

On the other hand, inventing an elaborate mode of speech for your animals, or giving them words for their own language, could also come out sour. It could strike the reader is overblown or stilted, and if you aren’t careful, your animals may lose the ability to have fun or make jokes within that stiff speaking style.

Because of the title, I’ve been asked more than once if my novel is a children’s book. It’s not. I don’t mind the question, but it opens another possibility for an author who wants to use animals in adult fiction: you can write a hybrid work that appeals to adults as well as children or young adults. See The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis) or Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little (E.B. White) for animal books that cross the child-grownup divide, even when they are intended primarily for children.

I found that writing the elephants’ sections of my novel was the easiest, most enjoyable, most liberating writing of the book. I hope more authors explore animal fiction and discover the same joy. And if you love animal books, let me know about your favorites.

For more information about To Follow Elephants and Rick’s other works, visit rickhodgesauthor.com.

Writer & editor in the Washington, DC area, and author of works such as To Follow Elephants, winner of a Nautilus Book Award. rickhodgesauthor.com

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