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?
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