5 Tips for Writing Animals
by Jess E. Owen
I’ll expand that and say, 5 Tips for Writing Animals that Also Help With Writing Fantasy.
After reading some fiction by younger, (or) just newer, fresh and exciting authors, I see some trends. I read around on DeviantArt, Fur Affinity, blogs, new novels, unpublished work and more, and these are some things to keep in mind when writing that may stop a prospective publisher, editor or agent in their tracks. (That was a cliche, see what I did there?)
Keep in mind these are second draft changes. Don’t make your head explode (or worse, stop writing) while you get out a first draft, but once you have a first draft, comb through for things like this.
1. Don’t use Human words to describe Animal things.
(In writing fantasy, this translates to: don’t use modern words to describe fantastic things). Example: She ran/flew/leaped as fast as a bullet. First: Are there bullets in your world? If not, cut it. When writing first drafts, we reach for the easiest metaphors, but they might not fit. If there are bullets in your world, is an animal likely to think of herself in those terms? Probably not. Think of other fast things. What do other animals consider fast? Don’t reach immediately for “cheetah” or “falcon” unless your character is familiar with them. Keep descriptions relative to your character’s experience and things that actually exist in that world. In their world.
“…swifter than the east wind, she soared along the crest of the mountain.”
2. Be consistent with names.
Study Erin Hunter and Kathryn Lasky and Clare Bell, the original (and PUBLISHED) animal authors. Their names make sense within the world of the animal. You don’t have to name your animal characters after characteristics (Redfur, Shorttail, Broadwing) although this is fun and you can. If you have a culture (and you should), make sure there is a cultural theme. This is true for fantasy as well. If you’ve taken time to create a culture (and you should), stick to names that are in the same culture too. Don’t have an “Krystalis Moonwater” in the same world as “Chris Jones,” unless one of them is from another dimension. Name inconsistencies like that will stop me from reading. We all have names we love (a personal favorite is “Ian”), but alas, if they don’t fit in the world, they don’t get a place in that story.
3. Think about what’s important to the animal.
…and have them notice those things. Little tics that we have as humans aren’t important to animals. They don’t think, “What time is it?” They think, in their own way, “I can’t see after dark. I should hunt now while it’s light.” The gryfons and wolves in my stories are very “human” in their needs and wants, but at the end of the day they’re animals with instincts and urges and limitations set by nature. Do they eat meat, or fruit? Are they more likely to listen for predators, or listen for prey? What do they care for in colors, scents, movement?
4. Body language.
Figure out (or research) what different movements mean to your animals. Are you writing a bird culture? A feline culture, or wolf culture? Horses? Something new? I took from both feline and raptor body movements to create gryfon body language that makes sense, and in some cases I made things up. “Mantling” is something eagles and hawks to do protect a kill. It’s also a beautiful gesture and wing display, and so when gryfons bow to a superior in my world, they mantle their wings to show respect. Think about body language and work it in. It’s even more important to feral animals than humans, although 85% of our communication is also non-verbal.
5. Animals are people too.
By that I mean of course, if you’re writing animals, you’re really writing people — they must have wants, needs, goals, challenges and setbacks just like any other story. Let us enjoy the animal super powers that we don’t have as humans — flight, super sight, smell and hearing — but when that’s stripped away, make sure you give us an engaging story and a sympathetic hero to root for.
Secret tip number 6…. don’t be a slave to reality. There are things that wolves do in my book that real wolves would not do. (Pack size, for instance). Gryfons don’t exist in our world and so there are no rules for them, but they fall somewhere between a lion pride (living in groups), and an eagle culture (a pair mating for life).
Always be respectful of the animals and if you can slip in a fun factual tidbit á la Kathryn Lasky, go for it! Just remember that we aren’t writing behavioral manuals: we’re writing stories.
Want to see how I handled animal writing + fantasy? Get Song of the Summer King today!