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From the Front Lines: Writing compelling animals who talk

Paging Dr. Doolittle.

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You know how you can’t drive past a bunch of cows without someone in the car going, “Mooooooooo”? I have an affliction that might just be worse than that. Whenever I see an animal, I make up dialogue for it. Witness:

Huckleberry, my dog: Yep. Yep. Smelled that; peed on that; gotta – oops! Missed one. Come on, people, we have to go back. Nope. I’m not quite done – stop pulling at me!

Random snail on morning walk: Ope! Gonna be a scorcher! Time to move it along! (Here I might also insert a noise like an old motorcar.)

Hummingbird: Doot doot doot doot! Wonder if Marcel is coming out today. I told that good-for-nothing gobshite to stay off of my patch. If he shows his ugly mug today, I’ma hafta divebomb the heck out of his wife.

See? It’s an issue.

Really all this means is that I’m happy to gravitate to any work of literature that features an animal as a protagonist or that’s told from an animal’s point of view. I think anthropomorphic literature imparts hard truths more easily, and I find them to be such highly enjoyable reads, no matter what species the heroes are. And yet, in my time reading fiction for literary magazines, it’s become apparent to me that there are a few tried-and-true things that can help a writer pen some successful anthropomorphic fiction. (Or nonfiction. Hey, those characters I meet on my morning walks with Huckleberry are for real.)

First, the voice.

An animal’s voice must somehow fit. That just means that the voice might sound the way the animal looks. So, for instance, if I’m writing a roly-poly baby bunny, it might not speak in complete sentences yet because it’s a baby, and anyone could see that. It might say, “Time for lunch?” instead of “Is it time for lunch?” and I might choose words for it that are round in nature or mouthfeel. “Hungry nowowowowowwwwww!” my rabbit might say. Whereas, if I’m writing an older jackrabbit, one of those long, leggy hares, he might sound more like The Fonz: “Kids! Shut yer yaps! I said, it’s time for lunch! What’s a guy gotta do around here to get some greens, hunh?”

If you want to have something flamboyant and silly-looking like, say, a rooster, speak in erudite, Oxfordian tones, you might have an uphill climb. It’s fine; you just have to set it up, with either some good scenes that establish his background and education; or another animal talking right away to the rooster in deferential tones.

You can also accomplish this with a few lines of internal dialogue. Take, for instance, the narrator in The Art of Racing in the Rain. Garth Stein’s hero Enzo is a dog. Ah, we immediately think. Simple pleasures. Major drool gland. Kind of hokey. Nope. Enzo’s first line is this: “Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.” In the next few lines, he goes on to talk about melodrama and polysyllabic words; he introduces us to his incredibly useless, floppy tongue, which is no good for forming these words. We know, right away, that this is no normal dog, because Stein has set it up that way. We’re immediately willing to believe the rest of the book, in which Enzo details some pretty deep thoughts and a whole life philosophy.

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But then, who among us has not wanted to believe that our dog has deep thoughts? Good anthropomorphic writing also might lean on what we think we can believe about animals, which leads me to a second good tip.

It really is OK to write animals outside of what we think we know of them. Who’s to say that the dopey, loving golden retriever isn’t actually harboring cat-like aspirations of global domination, anyway?

Defer to verisimilitude.

Ah, I love this word. It sounds like something an octopus might say, in warbling bubbly tones, right after draining a glass of champagne held in one of its eight arms. (Can’t you picture it? Suction-cup marks all over the glass? Who’s going to get stuck with those dishes, I wonder?) Literally, it means the quality of appearing to be truth. More colloquially, it means to feel real, as in, does it seem right that this would be a very stupid octopus, given what we know collectively about this animal in particular? Probably not. We know that octopuses are pretty smart, so to write a dumb octopus would place the burden on us as writers to come with a really good reason that he’s not all that bright. That’s OK. You just need to know that until the reader gets a good explanation for why an octopus is acting dumb, you’ll be fighting with their subconscious and everything they ever thought they’d learned from David Attenborough.

It really is OK to write animals outside of what we think we know of them. Who’s to say that the dopey, loving golden retriever isn’t actually harboring cat-like aspirations of global domination, anyway?

In fact, one of the things that makes a book like Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan work so well is that the gorilla, Ivan, is introduced to us as nothing special, despite his role as a starring attraction. Gorillas, we’ve been taught in our collective knowledge, are really bright. They are social creatures. Why is this one so different? We want to know, and so we read on, leaning on Ivan’s voice, and the mystery of the situation, until we find a satisfactory answer. And Applegate’s story illustrates another tip you can use for successful anthropomorphic work.

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Don’t be predictable.

We know a lot about the lifecycle of animals. Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin and the Mutual of Omaha did that for us. But that means that readers think they know what’s going to happen when we encounter a bunch of, say, elephants. They never forget; there’s an elephant graveyard; the elephant mommies all get together to watch all the elephant babies…these are all tools we can use to make the reader feel safe and secure in their reading, but you shouldn’t by any means rely on these things to form the backbone of any story, because then it’d be boring. Baby elephant gets stuck in a mud puddle. We all know what’s going to happen next: A team rescue. Yawn.

But if you insert just a few elements of interest, that can move a story that’s too true to life to the next level. Take, for instance, Watership Down. This is a book about some rabbits looking for a new home. Sure, OK, rabbits live in warrens, and sometimes they are threatened by things like development, and so they have to move. We’ve all seen rabbits flee from danger before, cute little frisky tails up in the air.

But wait. These rabbits are like no rabbits you have seen before. There is a seer among them. And the rabbits have a caste system. And some of them are militant!

If you borrow a little from real life and a little from your own imagination, your work will ring, ironically, a little more true.

There’s one final thing to address before I let you go write some compelling anthropomorphic animals: clothing. Do you want to put your animals in clothing? Fine. Dress ‘em up as you like. But do try to have them dressed up for a reason. I mean, if they’re in pinafores just for the reader’s sake, that hardly makes sense. But if they’re in boating clothes all the time because, say, they’re a water rat, and they live on the river and actually have to row boats for a living? Better yet if they have a little coin purse to store fares in, even.

Well. I can believe that, no problem.

Yi Shun Lai teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire Universities. Her book Pin Ups is forthcoming from Homebound Press in September. Visit her at thegooddirt.org.

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