Animals in fiction
Featuring animals from the Discworld and A Game of Thrones
Animals are a common occurrence in literature. So much so that I will not attempt to list them all, as Wikipedia has already done so for me. (Yes, that is a non-exhaustive list of all animals in fiction. It includes famous fictional dogs, badgers and worms.) In fantasy settings, animals often have important roles. Horses, especially, tend to feature heavily, from Shadowfax galloping across Middle-earth and the warhorses jousting in A Song of Ice and Fire, to Death’s horse in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Binky.
So today, let’s speak about animals in fiction. I think a mistake which writers, maybe especially fantasy writers, often make when writing animals, is to treat them like useful items. Replace motorbikes with horses, phones with pigeons, and ta-da! This is now the Middle Ages.
What this way of writing animals (as plot devices and useful background resources) misses, is that animals are not objects. Unlike a motorbike, a horse might sometimes be scared by the jump you’re trying to take, and shy away from it. Or they might be stubborn, angry, tired, not in the mood for whatever you have planned. In the same way, your pigeon could get lost, eaten by a bird of prey, or easily distracted by a better source of food than you. Loyal dogs don’t always come back when called, as dog owners will tell you.
Interestingly, not fleshing out animals misses out on a huge source of precious story content: conflict. The relationships we have with animals, especially working animals, is conflictual – we want them to do something for us, which they might or might not do. A lot of storytelling can happen right there, by thinking about how the animal would react.
A good example is Terry Pratchett. (In case the quote on the homepage isn’t enough of a giveaway, I am a huge Terry Pratchett fan.) I find that he explores all their potential when he writes about animals. In Going Postal, Moist von Lipwig needs to get somewhere fast, and asks for a horse. He makes a derogatory comment to the person providing said horse, so they go and find a stallion that hasn’t been broken in: Boris. The way Boris is described paints a high-strung, difficult stallion who’s always trying to bite his handlers.
Of course, Moist rises to the challenge, mostly by aiming Boris in the right direction and hoping for the best before mounting. The reason why the scene is so funny is because what should have been a simple mode of transportation turns out to be an unexpected obstacle and source of conflict. Boris wants something different from Moist – freedom, mostly. Not only is it believable, it’s also a source of great storytelling.
Another good example, still within the Discworld, is Lady Sybil Ramkin’s dragons. She is most often worried about their various ailments, what they’re eating, whether their stomachs will explode, etc. It is of course funny to imagine small (mostly) inoffensive dragons always on the verge of blowing themselves up. But it’s also true that people with pets, especially livestock, are always worrying about whether they’ll fall ill. Checking the pen to make sure everyone is alright is part of the everyday drudge of caring for outdoor animals. In the same way, Sybil plays with the trope of adopting a cool animal then regretting it, mentioning how people buy young dragons only to discover it’s a lot of work and acid drips on the carpet.
In the joust taking place in A Game of Thrones, one contestant uses a mare in heat to destabilise the Mountain’s stallion. Of course, a sprightly young mare would excite the stallion and make him uncontrollable: this ploy is both realistic and funny, and it shows George R. R. Martin took the time to think about what having a stallion – or a mare – in a joust would imply, and how the characters and the story could benefit from that.
Before writing animals, I would recommend observing them in their natural setting, thinking about how they communicate with each other, what they might want to do or want to avoid. I would take the time to think about their body language, what they smell like, what kind of mess they make, and how they interact with humans. Birds don’t smell but leave feathers everywhere. Horses tend to have trouble with flies. Dogs don’t attract flies but do smell, especially if it’s been raining. All three relate differently to their human carers.
Of course, not all animals in stories behave like animals. There are a few talking dogs and cats and very smart rats in the Discworld, too anthropomorphised to count as animals – and numerous animals in clothes and capable of speech in literature worldwide.
But those banal animals, which cannot talk or wear waistcoats, are often at their most exciting and realistic when written like creatures with agency, needs and drives aside from what the plot requires from them.
As all characters, they are better when fully-fledged, and given careful thought.
9 Feb. 2021