Dramatic, right? But ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you it’s accurate. Many of my literary models of heroism and virtue were people who ran on four legs, not two. Even now, I can’t get away from writing talking animals (case in point: my novel Daugment).
Looking critically at which childhood stories have stuck with me, I’ve found several other reasons why a talking animal makes an incredibly powerful storytelling tool.
Talking animals allow the reader to practice empathy for radically different perspectives. I often re-read Watership Down because of how deftly Adams makes me care about the very rabbit-centric plight of his rabbit characters. And yet – it’s a very humanizing story, every reading of which reveals more layered nuance about our stewardship of the Earth, our treatment of marginalized people, and our own personal heroic journeys.
Complex concepts can become subconsciously absorbed, thanks to the inherent simplification of animal characters. Author Clare Bell (of The Named series) used prehistoric cats and primates to illustrate consider the implications of civilization and technology. The fierce, impulsive hunter nature of cats and the meeker disposition of monkeys allowed her to pare away the complexity of social explorations and address them in a bare, simple way that I could understand even as a young reader.
Traits worth emulating are easier to identify and understand through animals. A non-human character is automatically “other,” and so to portray them as being defined by some positive or negative trait still felt honest (I was and am very sensitive to disingenuous prose). Talking animal characters, like Martin the Warrior of Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, can be nuanced but still defined by their leadership, compassion, selflessness, sacrifice, perseverance… I saw the behaviors in these characters that added up to those traits, and found it simple to understand what those traits were, what it meant to embody them, and how I could emulate them.
Animals free you up to write with less risk. I can choose an animal for its stereotypical characteristics and assign it traits of a friend or family member – and process what I needed to process without fear they would identify themselves in an opossum or a dragon. By transforming the people in my life into creatures, I hold them at a slight distance in my stories, and am able to gain perspective on both my own feelings and the other person’s behavior.
Today, I still find ways to sneak talking animals into my stories. Daugment is all about a man-turned-dog, and I decided Pitney would become a beagle-basset because I wanted him to face the inherent indignity in becoming a “bagel hound.” Without touching any human stereotypes, I’m able to use the power of stereotypes to set up some crucial details early on.
Interested in some quality talking animal stories? I highly recommend the books mentioned in this post, as well as Avi’s Dimwood Forest series, The Heavenly Horse from the Outermost West by Mary Stanton, and Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing series. (I’ll write up a complete list of my talking animal story recommendations later this summer!)