Anthropomorphic Literature – Guest Post by Jaq D Hawkins…

When we first start to read stories as children, many if not most of our characters are talking animals. These loveable characters are anthropomorphised completely in our young imaginations and the fact that they can talk and reason like humans doesn’t challenge our belief in reality, but is accepted as natural fantasy.

This also extends to inanimate objects like trains and bulldozers, toasters and any number of common objects children might encounter. How can anyone not love Thomas the Tank Engine or The Brave Little Toaster?

Later when we’re grown, a talking cat in a story becomes whimsical in a Mystery book, while in the realm of Science Fiction and Fantasy, cat-like creatures, aliens, any kind of anthropomorphised creature is fair game. In the ‘Paranormal Romance’ genre that has exploded since self-publishing became widespread, we get all manner of shifters.

This started with romanticising vampires and werewolves, then expanded to cat-shifters and other creatures, even hamster shifters! Naturally dragon-shifters became a thing as well, but generally these shifter stories are a sub-genre of Romance rather than Traditional Fantasy or Horror, where vampires and werewolves used to reside and still do in their traditional roles

Attributing human characteristics or behaviour to non-human entities, including animals, is a common way of perceiving and interacting with the world. Even giving a name to a pet, especially one that might be used by a human, is a way of anthropomorphising the animal.

Psychological studies have shown that when we get lost in a story and identify with a character, the character becomes entwined with the self. When that character is a talking animal, whether cartoon or alien creature, our identification with them gives us a perception of whatever special abilities they might have as well as an ‘otherness’ from the ordinary realities of human life.

This extends to bipedal aliens, robots and even talking dragons. Who wouldn’t want to have a friendly dragon companion on our side, especially one with the logical genius of Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones? Anthropomorphising is a way of making sense of events and behaviours that we encounter. It goes back to earliest recorded records. The wind and rain and other natural phenomena are given personalities in tribal cultures and children naturally talk to their teddy bears and pets as if they understand every word. Some of us still do as adults.

Exactly why we do this is a product of evolution and how we perceive social interaction from our earliest cognisance. Science fiction has given us robots among other things to project human emotions onto. Who didn’t cry for the child robot in the film, AI?

Perhaps we anthropomorphise animals most often because they are living creatures with genuine minds and emotions of their own and this carries over to fictionalised animal characters.

In the story, The Wizard’s Quandary which I wrote for the Dreamtime Dragons and Fatal Femmes Anthology, I enjoyed the interaction between the female Alchemist and her miniature dragon companion (talking of course) that I’ve been extending the story into a novel and possibly a series. Anne McCaffrey introduced psychic talking dragons in her Pern series and that set a new standard, much like Anne Rice did with vampires, but precedent for talking dragons is in many old stories, including The Hobbit.

When you think of your earliest favourite fictional characters, chances are they will be animal characters like Peter Rabbit, Azlan or The Cat in the Hat. It makes for an interesting study, especially when examining the popularity of animal shifters in modern fiction.

How about you? Do you write anthropomorphised characters into your stories?

Psychology References:

Jaq D Hawkins

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11 thoughts on “Anthropomorphic Literature – Guest Post by Jaq D Hawkins…

  1. A good article thanks. I loved animal characters as a child. Flicka, Even though I am allergic to horses. Buck and white fang from Jack London, Hazel from watership down, Shardick the polar bear, ring of bright water etc. Lol- enjoyed “decision at doona too”. As I grew I left all those tales behind and started writing my own few of which involved animals in any but the most cursory of ways. Then just two years ago I thought some of my stories and books were becoming rather samey, formulaic and I had always prided myself on originality. Still making me money and not copies but common themes and ideas. I asked a few author friends about this and one suggested writing something that was totally against type and the farthest thing from my wheelhouse I could think of was Fables. So I started writing of philosophical goats who worshiped the god of farming only to forget who he was, Stoats scenting prey on the wind but deciding that their lives could be better spent stargazing, Moon children (a large vole) who wished to see and understand the world and ants that thought the Ivy they lived on was the world. Best thing that I could ever have done, it revitalized me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Do I talk to my pets as if they understand every word? Yes. Do they understand what I say – only the things they want to hear. Sound like anyone else you know?
    And as for writing my animals into books – yes, a whole series of them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You say people talk to their pets as if they understand every word. There is an implication they don’t understand any of it. But that’s not true. A dog can understand many words. We had to spell out ‘walk’, ‘cat’, ‘birds’ and ‘lead’ when I had a dog. If we told him to ‘get your lead’ he would go and get it. They also understand the commands we give them.
    I saw a TV programme once about intelligence in animals. A dog was told to go into another room and bring a particular thing, including the colour of the object. He was correct every time. (They included for example, several balls of different colours along with other toys). No one was in the room to give him clues. They said some dogs have a vocabulary of a three year old child.
    I also saw a parrot picking shapes of different colours correctly when told.
    So I believe we underestimate the intelligence of animals. Ever seen the problem solving ability of squirrels when trying to reach bird feeders?
    And there are the examples of Great Apes learning to sign.
    I’m not quite sure whether you are saying this anthropomorphism is good or not.
    I wrote a blog post about this some time ago. Can Animals Talk.


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    • I’ve read various numbers for how many words/commands dogs understand and some suggested as may as 164. I think it may depend on the intelligence of the individual dogs. My aunt raised German Shepherds and they were very intelligent.

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      • Yes, they are. My nephew had one. He was lovely. Big and furry ( he was a long-haired ). My great neice, my other nephew’s daughter called him a bear.
        But I believe the most intelligent dogs are Border Collies. And Afghan Hounds, if my memory serves me well, are, while beautiful, some of the least.
        To go back to your post, though, I think most children like animals and that’s why they are used so often in children’s literature. I know I loved stories about animals. Even when past the talking animls I adored books about them, like Black Beauty and Shadow the Sheepdog. Later, that would include books like White Fang.

        Liked by 1 person


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