Guest post: “Why Furry” by Frank LeRenard

Why Furry

by Frank LeRenard


It’s one of those extremely difficult, often tiresome, and seemingly ubiquitous questions in furry fiction: why use anthropomorphic animals and not just humans? And I see all manners of mental acrobatics going on amongst all of us in trying to answer it. We’ve come up with some decent excuses along the way: simple stylistic choice, a means to bring up complicated issues like racism without offending, etc. But it’s a tough question to answer effectively, because in the end the reason may simply be that we think anthro animals are cool.

But there’s a sort of hidden tradition embedded in furry lit, something a bit more penetrating and philosophical than what usually comes to mind.

So, we homo sapiens spend an awful lot of time trying to understand ourselves. All of the so-called great literature of our day seems to be focused on that nebulous concept we call ‘the human condition’. I’m sure part of this quest stems from the general idea that humans are super special, something new and interesting in the universe, the most intelligent creatures of Planet Earth and masters of all that surrounds us. So in our sometimes overly simplistic thinking, we try to reconcile that idea with the well-known fact that humans also often act like completely irrational beings, fighting and killing over stuff like jealousy or love or power (so-called ‘animal’ things), and this confuses us and makes us ponder what truly makes us human.

But really, as time has gone on, a lot of things have become clear. For one, we aren’t the center of the universe. The universe, in fact, has no center because it exists as a kind of geometry for which a center is impossible to describe. We’re not the center of our own solar system, either; the sun is. And the more we study our neighbors, those other ‘lower’ species that inhabit this little planet with us, the more we start to realize that we’re even pretty closely connected with all of them, too. We share many behaviors with other animals: crows can use tools, elephants display empathy, octopi can figure out how to open jars even if they’ve never seen one before. Maybe the time has also come for us to admit that we’re not the center of the Earth’s ecosystem either.

So what do we as a species do in this new realm of apparent purposelessness? It seems a bit of a depressing existential quandary to deal with. But, you see, this isn’t the only way to think of it. Because in this realm, what’s really happening is that we’re finally starting to perceive the ‘other’.

One of the most famous photographs ever taken was an incidental one nabbed by Bill Anders in 1968 while he was on the moon, which was later dubbed ‘Earthrise’. He admitted that getting the shot wasn’t even in the plan at the time; just one of those moments where you turn around and think to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I should take a picture of that’. But it resonated deeply in the public. It was the first picture of Earth taken from another world. A first outside look at the place where we all live, a giant blue marble set against a deep black backdrop, a splash of color juxtaposed with the dreary cratered grayness of the moon’s surface. Earth in its proper context.

But the topic here is anthro characters in fiction. You see, it’s hard to build a complete picture of something if you’re living inside it. This is as much true for humanity as it is for the Earth or the Milky Way galaxy. The fact that we are the only species we know how to communicate with on a fundamental level is problematic in that respect, because we can never really gain an outsider’s view of our own species. And so we’re left with this conundrum, this constant effort to learn more about ‘the human condition’ by peering at it through human eyes.

But fiction is bigger than that, because it relies on this thing we have called ‘imagination’. Maybe we can’t see ourselves as we truly are from our current vantage point, but we can always pretend. In our imagination, we can sit back and take the long view, look at the Earth from the moon.

There are other options than anthropomorphized animals, of course. Aliens, magical beings, robots, etc. But at some point, if you get too far out there, the whole picture just starts to look like a barely visible blue dot amongst billions and it loses its impact. You don’t want to get so far out that you can’t even find the thing you were supposed to be trying to understand. Who knows how aliens might even think? Do they have bifocal vision, hearing organs, stomachs? Do they see better in visible light or infrared? Do they see different wavelengths as colors? Do they communicate through speech, chemical signals, vibrations in the ground, what? And robots can pose a similar problem, assuming we’re the ones programming them; they either have this simplistic, binary manner of thinking that ends up generating seemingly bizarre solutions to common problems (see: a modern robot trying to enter a car; there’s a video of this somewhere), or else they just end up thinking themselves superior and take over the world.

But I already mentioned that there’s a nice midpoint that’s readily available: other animals. They’re different, but we have common ground. We know they exist, too, and we’ve taken some time to study them, so you don’t have to start completely from scratch. Plus, we all evolved through fairly similar pathways, even think in similar ways about certain things, yet our biologies and brains are distinct. It works out very well for the imagination, as a little spark to step out of the realm of being human, but not so far that your whole audience (who is, until further notice, always going to be human themselves) can’t relate to it. Why not exploit this? Because talking animals are kiddie stuff?

Of course, that’s the point I’m making. They aren’t, or at least they don’t have to be. You want to explore ‘the human condition’ like all great literature is apparently supposed to do, you do it from the outside. And there’s this great resource sitting right beside us that we can exploit for that purpose. Use it.

Or else just do it because anthro animals are cool, I guess.


7 thoughts on “Guest post: “Why Furry” by Frank LeRenard

  1. An alternate viewpoint that I’m fond of exploring, that ties into the use of anthropomorphic characters versus humans: Allowing the different biologies open the possibilities of personal ability within a story, and exploring how that would affect society. I often lament how often writers are willing to embrace anthropomorphic characters but unwilling to explore the potential of permitting them atavism.

    A few examples:

    1. Some mustelids, most notably ferrets, *must* become pregnant on their first estrus, or they will eventually die of estrogen poisoning. What does a society, or a segment of society, look like, when they have live under the reality of the necessity of barely-pubescent girls needing to become pregnant? What does a society shaped by the realities of needing to be a (young!) teen mother look like? What precautions do worried parents take? Arranged marriages? Artificial insemination? Post-conception birth control? What conflicts arise can arise from this?

    2. Many animals have evolved to hibernate. This isn’t something they can just ‘shut off’; even if removed from seasonal conditions, many important biological processes are mediated around hibernation. What does a society built around this need look like? What conflicts erupt from it? What if you have to compete economically in society with other species, and you’re under a handicap of having to sleep away a quarter of the year?

    3. Diseases. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is the feline equivalent of HIV. Cats also have an airborne virus that causes _leukemia_. Bat populations are being decimated by the white-nosed bat fungus. Where are the anthropomorphic novel equivalents to Ebola-potboilers? Scientists racing against time to stop an airborne leukemia-causing virus would keep me riveted to the book no matter if the scientists were humans or cats! Who needs Zombie stories for anthropomorphics when you can write Rabies stories?

    4. Senses. Human vision isn’t just exceptionally keen; we also have a tremendous amount of neurons mapped to image processing compared to most species. Our entire psyche and hierarchy of perception is built around perceiving and processing sight, first. But think about what society would be like if that changed? If you are a scent-focused species, like dogs, lying about where you’ve been and who you’ve been with becomes much harder. Forget Big Brother; he might always be watching, but Alpha Dog is always *sniffing*. Sight is rooted in the present; scent carries the story of not just the now, but the past. What does a detective story get told as when you’re a dog or a bear on the case? What scents do you have to bring forward to convince the noses of a judge and jury?

    5. Psychology. Human psychology is as much a product of evolution as any other animal, and the product of our own instincts. Address the behavioral and instinctive differences your characters would have. Canines, Dogs in particular, draw comfort from a hierarchal pack structure that would chafe most humans. Where a human finds oppression and resentment in tyranny, a canine would find comfort and security. Cats, obligate carnivores, ambush predators; to be spotted by prey is at best, an empty belly, and at worst a fatal injury. Translated into interaction, being forward and direct verbally would chafe the feline mind, especially with species its instincts might perceive as prey.

    6. Scale. My favorite example of this ‘Mouseguard’; a comic and writing series that scales up the adventure by scaling down the heroes. Forget dragons; at the scale of a mouse, mundane creatures such as a crab or a fox are terrifying, and the appearance of a moose is an astonishment beyond the titanic.

    Authors and writers and readers alike of furry and anthropomorphic fiction: *CELEBRATE* the atavism of your characters. Don’t make ‘paint job’ characters that wouldn’t be different as a human. Write characters whose sourced species *matter to the story*. And not just to the story, but to them, themselves! Let the core values of the character reflect their atavism, their sensory priorities, their innate psychology shaped by evolution.

    I urge you all, authors, readers: Ask for more from the genre. Make the anthropomorphism of your characters *matter*, not just to the story, but to each individual character.

      1. I might just do that with some time to clean this up from a lot of off-the-cuff commentary to a more sculpted train of thought.

    1. I agree 100%. I have always tried to be conscious of things like this and include them in my furry stories. I often write in first person to emphasize a more now-focused mindset for animalistic-minded characters, and try to describe things using the senses the character’s species emphasizes – for a wolf for example I’d describe how things smelled and sounded first, THEN maybe how they look, and in less detail. It’s hard for non-furry readers to understand or follow sometimes but I think it’s the only authentic way to do the thing, honestly. Otherwise you’re just writing humans in fursuits.

  2. Great examples. Mouseguard probably is my favorite example of Scale. I remember Secret of NIMH and American Tail using that quite a bit as well, and The rescuers… now that I think of it; it seems to be kind of a “mouse thing” primarily.

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