Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Holding a Pen in a Paw: The Challenge of Anthropomorphism

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

From 2009 to 2015, I spent practically all of my waking hours in university, devoted first to my BSc Animal Behaviour course, and then to my Postgraduate Diploma in Wildlife Conservation. During the past ten years, I have worked firsthand with over 80 different species, from rabbits to rhinos. So the subject of animals and the way they think has been in my own mind for a while.

Something that was drilled into me during my Animal Behaviour course was to never anthropomorphise. Giving human characteristics or emotions to a non-human animal was a huge no-no. We were told, over and over, that any emotion we thought we saw on an animal's face was just our own emotions reflected back at us. And while I understood the importance of not being biased, I didn't agree.

In science, clean and unbiased data is the lifeline upon which everything hangs. A whiff of anthropomorphism and you would be instantly penalized. But it's impossible to avoid in fiction. Every single story which features an animal character is going to use anthropomorphism, even though some manage it better than others. But how are you supposed to know what is better? If we are human, how can we write outside of human perceptions?

Personally, I think that notion in itself is a blessing and a curse. We have extraordinarily powerful brains that can imagine things very vividly. There are no limits in regards to human mental innovation, except that practically everything comes back to our basic emotions and human experiences. We all know fear, contentment, playfulness, joy, sadness - things that all stories are ultimately built from. But even though it might seem like a stupid question, how exactly can we be sure that animals feel the same way?

To make up for this uncertainty, a lot of animal characters - especially if they concern a large group - are given some kind of culture. This makes it easier for us to identify with them on a basic level, even if it's completely unrealistic. The colony in Antz is roughly based on how actual colonies work, but I'm yet to find an anthill with a bar!

In contrast, most animal characters that I've seen tend to be among the species which are taken to be higher up on the scale of 'intelligence': wolves, dolphins, owls, and deer, to name a few. For this reason, we can arguably find it easier to relate to them on the basic emotional level, and so they need less embellishment from a fictional culture to appeal to us. Trying to project ourselves onto an insect is tough in one respect, yet in another it's actually easier, because a lot more things around them can be built from scratch, and taken at face-value.

But, returning to the point: if we're going to write an animal POV, and try to keep it complex and believable without too much fictional culture, where do we draw the line between human and animal?

The key is to remember that we are animals ourselves. It's often quoted that our DNA is only about 2% different from our closest hominid relative, the chimpanzee. Outside our modern-day culture, we evolved from the same common ancestors as other animals, so even though some complex things we experience are unique to our own species, they can't all have just sprung up out of nowhere for our benefit. We tremble with fear; so does a dog. We get defensive when threatened; so does a lion. The so-called 'fight or flight' reaction is a leftover from our ancestors' lives in the wild. So on that basic level, we're not so different from animals, and by bearing that in mind, we can attempt to look at things from their point of view.

Choosing how to create that point of view is one of the big steps for a writer, because you're going to have both praise and criticism no matter how you come at it. So I think the second thing to bear in mind is the context of the story itself, and weigh the animal POV against that. Are the characters going to be exclusively animal, in an animal world - or will it be here and there, with human characters in their world? If it's the former, more artistic license is needed, because you have to think about other things. Animals don't use a spoken or written language like humans do - how are these characters going to communicate in a way we will understand? Outside of their natural survival, what is their story, and how are they going to stick to a plot that a human reader won't get bored with?

All these nitpicky little questions are the reason why every single animal character we come across in fiction is anthropomorphised. For story purposes, there is no escaping the fact that we need to relate to them as characters, and the only way to do that is to make them as familiar as possible. Because of that, the concept can get pretty tiring, because every single attempt to create an animal character is a complete stab in the dark for us humans. It can be quite rare to find a story that hits the nail on the head - and personally I've only ever found one: The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver. I've even recommended this series to fellow ethologists and zoologists; the animal POVs are that good. It's as close to perfect as I've seen in a work of fiction, and its beauty is in its simplicity. Everything comes down to those basic emotions that transcend all species, and it's been taken a step further in a completely natural way.

Yes, animal POVs can be pretty daunting, but try not to be put off by the prospect of them. Yes, there is a lot to think about when you're planning them, but most of that planning is in regards to the story itself, and exactly what kind of tale you're trying to tell. When everything is stripped back, there are actually more similarities than differences between us and them. And once that concept is seen, the sky's the limit for where our imagination can take us.

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