An elf, a shapeshifter, and a knight walk into a bar…
I’m coming to this latest iteration of this perennial debate a little late, but since the principles apply to many genres of writing, I wanted to inflict my opinion on the net.
Certain critics of anthropomorphic fiction take issue with stories in which the author seems to avoid (or is simply oblivious) to the question, “Why talking animals?”
Watts Martin makes a good point that if a story features elves, dwarves, and hobbits, no one raises an analagous critique1. Then he posits that the real question ought to be, “How does the fact that some of the characters are talking animals affect the story?” In other words, in most stories involving elves, dwarves, et cetera, the differences in the fictional culture and characteristics of the elves, humans, and so on is usually inherent to the plot. Or at the very least figures into the characterization of each character.
Since our readers are human, it certainly seems reasonable to ask that any time we use non-human characters of any sort, there should be some sort of literary reason for doing so3.
Some authors assert that they are using the talking animals as stand-ins for different races, ethnic groups, and so on, making it a little easier to make certain kinds of commentary on social issues, let’s say. Others harken to Berke Breathed’s comments about choices comic artists make: a person sitting on a toilet reading a paper is off-putting, at best, while a penguin sitting on a toilet reading a paper is cute. Still others say that the species serve as a kind of shorthand for personality traits. Otters are playful, for instance, and cats are aloof.
Those are valid reasons, though I would quibble that many of the authors I’ve heard use those excuses don’t seem to write stories actually demonstrating those techniques. But maybe they’re doing it in a subtle, nuanced fashion I’m just missing4.
My particular problem when I hear someone talk about the culture or personality traits of particular non-humans, is that my contrarian instincts always kick in. Okay, so raccoons in your world are sneaky, clever, and have a rather cavalier attitude about the concept of ownership, leading many of them to be thieves or pursue similar professions. As soon as you say that, I immediately wonder, “But what about the one who doesn’t want to go to raccoon practice, but would rather be a dentist?56” And don’t tell me there’s only one raccoon in all the world who isn’t particularly sneaky and clever.
Which is why I sometimes respond to those who insist that a story needs to answer that “How does it affect the story” question with, “I’ll agree every story using talking animals has to answer that question if you agree that every story which mentions a character’s eye color has to also answer the question of how the heroine’s eye color affected her behaviour in the story.7”
So why am I writing two novels that include a shapeshifting fortune teller, a raccoon thief, an otter priest, dragon-riding knights, and so on? One truthful answer is that I’ve been hanging around anthropomorphic fans, artists, and writers for over two decades. I have lots of images, snippets, conversations, and tons of debates about this topic floating around in my head all the time. Of course they’re going to pop up in stories!
Or you can look at some of the jokes in my stories—the raccoon thief who keeps protesting his innocence by accusing his accusers of species-bias, or the otter who insists he’s a kitsune trapped in an otter’s body—and you can say I’m using the animals as metaphors to tackle issues such as racism and transphobia; topics which could be too grim and depressing if told using ordinary people in a realist setting.
Or you can look at some of the fun I’ve had with things like the Church of the Great Shepherdess9, the Predation Congregation, and the Omnivoral Free Fellowship, and say I’m looking at how our social institutions are more of an outgrowth of our biological identity than we may like to admit.
I suppose those do, in fact, answer the “how” question. I couldn’t have a church like the Predation Congregation10 in a comedic tale if I wasn’t doing it in a world where a talking golden retriever and a talking cat can be teamed up as police constables.
I have done the world building to figure out why I have talking animals, dragons, elves, and even ordinary humans, living in a civilization together, but so far it hasn’t been important to the plot (though there are a few clues here and there in the existing narrative). But neither the answers to the “How?” as stated above, nor the “Why?” answered in my world-building will satisfy some people.
To them, I can only quote Tolkein: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
1. That isn’t entirely true, of course. When I was younger, I was frequently asked by my most fundamentalist relatives why I wrote about elves or aliens rather than “stories that would help people find Jesus2.” But the number of people who take issue with elves and the like is infinitesimal compared to the number who get in a tizzy over talking animals.
2. I was not always diplomatic enough to stop myself from replying, “I didn’t realize he was lost!”
3. If nothing else, as an author, everything you do in your story ought to further at least one of the goals of moving the plot forward, illustrating the character, or setting the scene.
4. And it’s a quibble I’m sure people would make with some of my stories in this “genre,” as well.
5. Bonus points if you recognize that allusion!
6. To be fair, writing a character who fights against the stereotype is a perfectly legitimate way to use an elf or an otter or whatever as a metaphor for ethnic/racial/religious prejudices.
7. I understand if you object that eye color is not on the same scale, as it were, as species8. I counter by pointing out that talking animals in stories have been around for at least as long as written language has existed. Ancient Sumerian tales occasionally featured talking animals. The Bible has talking animals. Aesop’s fables are almost all about talking animals. I could go on. The point is that as a literary tool, talking animals aren’t outlandish, and many of Aesop’s fables would work just as well with a human instead of a fox or a crow as the main character.
8. I should also mention the time when I was involved in a collaborative project featuring elves, and wound up in a conversation where another contributor was appalled to the point of refusing to ever work with me on any projects because I couldn’t remember the eye color of one of my own characters without looking it up. She didn’t believe it was possible for someone to plot a story about a character unless you knew that character’s eye color, hair color, hair style, et cetera. So for some people, it is definitely on the same scale.
9. Members tend to be from herbivorous species that live in herds. Adherents are sometimes derogatorily called “Bo Peep-ites.”
10. Whose members have been known to hunt, kill, and then eat sentient non-members.