Animals as Characters

August 22, 2010 at 5:38 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I’m going to preface this post by pointing out that I really dislike animal movies. That is, movies where the main character is an animal that is befriended by a human and does a range of cutesy/mischievous things before ultimately solving some massive problem and healing all the wrongs in their friendly human’s life while giving us some moral message. There are a lot of these movies out there and they are well loved movies but they’ve never grabbed me as an audience member. Mostly because cute didn’t cut it for me as a replacement for story or character development even when I was a child and the overly moralistic message of so many of these movies seemed really condescending.

That said, I do like animals in stories. They can serve a valuable role and if well written can even have all the attributes of a full fledged character. There is a difference between a movie with an animal in it and an animal movie. Same with books.

When I consider using an animal in a story I usually think about the following:

1.  Is the animal’s presence actually adding anything to the story? A means of transport, companionship, comfort, finding something, revealing something, etc.

2.  Could a human character serve the same purpose better?

3.  Is the animal actually acting in the way an animal would or are they simply a human character dressed up like an animal?

4. If the animal is magical and can talk, are they still acting in the way an animal would or is there some cross over between the animal characteristics and human characteristics? And is there any point behind this cross over?

5.  Is the animal becoming simply a cute distraction from the plot?

Inserting an animal as a character for me is like inserting any other character. They need to have a purpose and serve some sort of function in the plot. They need to relate to the other characters and if possible those relationships should grow and change as the story progresses.

What are your thoughts on animals as characters? Or animal movies for that matter.

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12 Comments

  1. Carol Ann Hoel said,

    Yes, an animal as a character should meet the criteria for any other character and should not be an addition but an integral part of the story. I like animals as characters when appropriate. They are characters in our real everyday lives.

  2. Arlee Bird said,

    Some movies with animal characters are fine, but when the animal is annoying it drives me nuts. I absolutely hated “Marley and Me”. I was screaming “Get rid of the damn dog already!” throughout the movie and by the end I was too annoyed to be sad or moved in any way.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

  3. Alex Willging said,

    I’m not that big a fan of animals as characters, but that would depend on the nature of the story. Like you said, if the animals serve a function in the story instead of just being there for the sake of being there, then there’s merit.

    The only exception I’d make is for golden retrievers because (in my own opinion) they are the best dogs ever and everyone just needs to recognize that already.

  4. chris behrens said,

    I’ve always been a big fan of animal fiction/fantasy. I love all the Disney characters and movies. I love Elmo. I love C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which has everything in it.

    And I’m writing my own animal story right now. The greatest memory I have of animal stories was when my then 8 yr. old read The Wind in the Willows. She loved it. I can still remember her giggling while reading that, and many times she came to me asking me what different words meant. The big words didn’t deter her at all! And she is not a big reader at all. So I was impressed. I asked her at the time, what she liked the best about the book, and she said, “I like that the frog wears clothes and drives a car like people. I think it’s funny!” That from an 8 yr. old.

    Just figured I’d share this.
    CB

  5. Jemi Fraser said,

    I think it depends for me. In some books it works really well – Redwall series which is all animals, Animal Farm. Sometimes I find it more annoying, but as you say it’s probably because the character wasn’t really integral to the plot.

  6. AlexJ said,

    It works in some movies, but I despise the ones where the animals talk. “Babe” was fine, but every live animal talking movie after that has taken it way over the top.

  7. Deb Salisbury said,

    I’m not fond of talking ‘real’ animals, but I have no objections to magical animals (dragons, griffins) who talk. But I agree, they need to be different than humans.

    Great post. I hadn’t really thought about this subject before.

  8. Lua said,

    I don’t like animals as main characters. The only exception I can give to that rule may be Orwell’s Animal Farm. But unless you can write like Orwell- I say don’t do it. Stick to humans 🙂

  9. Carol Kilgore said,

    You know how much I love animals, but I totally agree with this about their purpose in your story. If the story is an ‘animal story’ like Beethoven or whatever, that’s one thing. We know what to expect going in. But in a ‘story with an animal’ that dog or cat or whatever should behave like what it is, not like a human.

  10. Tooty Nolan said,

    What would you make of my Hamster-Britain series in which ALL the human characters have been replaced with rodents? Or don’t they count as animals because of the necessary anthropomorphisation?

  11. Agatha82 said,

    I hate those animal movies as well. Oddly enough, I’ve got animals in both of the novels I’ve written. They’re not main characters, they’re kind of in the background adding more atmosphere, okay, that’s probably not the right word. However there is ONE animal in one of them that plays a central role in “helping” get two people together, it’s not that the animal knows this, it just happens to be in the right place at the right time and because of him, these two people finally meet. However, it appears he is a type of “familiar” to someone because he appears again at the end of the novel and it really makes you think “oh…so that’s who it belonged to?” Hope I explained that okay, I’m burnt out from editing…bleh

  12. Barb said,

    I hate talking animals since Disney movies! 😉
    I’ve had an elephant as my protagonist’s best friend in Air, because he’s cinical and shut down to other human beings. I’ve had a horse-lover in Earth. A dolphin as good friend in Water. Whenever I use animals, they’re just that, animals, and I try to use them as they’d behave in nature… which sometimes means some research beforehand! And I never add pets, because I never had one, so it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when I create a character… 😉

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