Advice, Books, Characters

Anthropomorphized Animals

Fucking Redwall, man. What the hell is up with that book. <–that is basically the entire point of this post. You can just stop reading now if you’re busy or whatever, because this is basically the point I am making. But if you want the long-winded, detailed analysis, read on, because anthropomorthized animals…I have feelings about them. A lot of feelings. And most of them are because of Redwall (by Brian Jacques).

To clarify, these are not positive feelings. And also I didn’t read Redwall until I was entirely too old for it, so I lack the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia that many people seem to possess. If you love Redwall, awesome! But I am going to complain about it, so you’ve been warned. 

Alright, let’s back up for a second just to make sure we’re all on the same page. Anthropomorphism, for those who don’t know, is when you take something that isn’t a human and imbue it with a human-like personality. When your computer is being really slow and you think that it hates you, you are anthropomorphizing the computer. In fiction, the term picks up a slightly more specific meaning, referring to when a sentient character–not necessarily a talking one, but definitely a thinking one–is something other than human (or intelligent alien, I guess–that’s kind of a grey area). Examples abound. The bowl of petunias in Hitchhiker’s Guide comes immediately to mind. Whatever. You get the idea.

Anthropomorphized animals are super common in fiction. They’re everywhere, and they have been around forever. I mean, most tribal religions feature some form of anthropomorphism in their stories, like Anansi the Spider in African folktales or Coyote in Native American ones. There are lots of effective examples of anthropomorphism, like Watership Down by Richard Adams or the classic Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Sadly, bad examples far outweigh the good, which is in no small part due to the fact that children’s media has latched on to it as a shorthand for “kid-friendly.” Think about the stories you know of where the characters are all animals–Disney’s classic animated film Robin Hood, the TV show Arthur, books like The Berenstain Bears, etc. How many of them are intended for children? Yeah, that’s what I thought. The problem with this is that it leads authors/studios/etc. to make characters animals for no real reason–and then they make these stupid mistakes. Like Redwall does.

1. The Animals Do Not Behave Like Animals

Now, I know that in order to be anthropomorphized, these animal characters necessarily have to take on human traits. You know. Like speech. But that doesn’t mean they have to completely shed their animal identities, and in fact they shouldn’t. A mouse should still be skittish; an Owl, sharp; a dog, sloppy and happy. To lose these things is to lose the appeal of each animal, turning them into just boring old people. Redwall makes an attempt at imbuing the characters with their animal traits by essentially dividing them along race lines (come on–all the rats and weasels are evil, but the badger is on the side of good? How are you deciding these things?) and occasionally making a bird character fly or whatever, but for the most part their animal-ness is forgotten until it is convenient to remind us of it again. As far as I can tell, the only reason Matthias is a mouse is so that people can constantly be impressed with how not-mouse-like he is, and that’s just lazy.

2. The Society is Just Human Society

Similar to the last point–if all of your characters are animals, they ought to behave like animals en masse–not like furry humans. Mice like to chew holes and hide in walls. Birds build nests. Squirrels hoard things. Putting them all in a castle together with living chambers and chores and regular clothing and pomp and circumstance like humans might seem like a funny concept, but it falls totally flat when you consider how little it has to do with their animal nature. Again, what is the point in making them animals if they are just going to behave exactly like humans? It’s fine to evolve their society and build hierarchy and whatnot–even quite a lot of fun, once you start thinking about the psychological implications of some animal biology–but the roots of their animal behavior should be visible in that system, or else there isn’t a point in making them animals in the first place. Think less Redwall, more Finding Nemo.

3. For the Love of God Remember the Size Ratios

This is the thing that irritates me the most about Redwall, but it happens in pretty much every written anthropomorphized animal story. If your protagonist is a mouse, and he is friends with a rabbit, then the size difference between them has to always be there. You can’t forget it through most of the scenes where they are talking and fighting together to the point where they even trade articles of clothing, but then conveniently remember it when it’s time for the rabbit to give the mouse a ride. THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE. If your characters are going to be different kinds of animals, the physical differences between them have to always be in play–not just when they’re useful. And in case you think I’m picking on Redwall (I am totally picking on Redwall, but you know what I mean), there are tons of movies that make this exact same mistake, too. Even popular big-budget ones. Go re-watch the Avengers and pay attention to how big the Hulk is in any given scene and you will see what I mean.

Those are the three biggest problems with anthropomorphized characters, though I do have one last, tiny bone to pick. If your characters are mostly different animals, except within family groups, you cannot expect anyone to be surprised when your main character gets together with the only other animal that is his same species. You are signaling that relationship the second the other character appears on screen. I’m looking at you, Disney. Five-year-old me was on to you and your Maid Marion, and she was not pleased. Kids aren’t that stupid.

Basically, the thing with anthropomorphized animals is the same issue that arises with any other kind of conceit in a story: there has to be a reason all the characters are animals. Their animal-ness should be central to the story or, falling short of that, at least central to their character. Making them animals because it’s cute just doesn’t cut it.

Fuzzily yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” -Groucho Marx

Here are some stories with good anthropomorphizing:

  1. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  3. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (also, to a lesser extent, Stuart Little)
  4. Finding Nemo
  5. The Lion King
  6. The Jungle Book
  7. A Bug’s Life
  8. Doctor Dolittle series by Hugh Lofting
  9. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (this one specifies that the animals are all human-sized, but the rest of it is consistent)
  10. Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (the animal is mystical, but still true to legend and decidedly not human)

If you can think of other ones, tell me! This list is by no means comprehensive.

9 thoughts on “Anthropomorphized Animals”

  1. Babe by E.B. White? I’m probably missing something but isn’t Babe a film based on The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith?

    Great post though! All these things bug me as well – I could never work out why the characters in Robin Hood were animal and it completely put me off the film. One of my favourite examples of an animal driven story is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron a 2002 film in which the horses display human characteristics but never actually speak (they have been given very expressive eyebrows though).

    And of course: Winnie the Pooh!

    1. Oops, you’re right. I got it mixed up with Charlotte’s Web. How many children’s stories about intelligent pigs are there, anyway?? Fixed now. Although Babe is another good example!

      Spirit is such a wonderful example of visual storytelling. And who doesn’t love Winnie the Pooh? Both awesome suggestions.

      1. It seems that pigs are incredibly popular in children’s stories, who’d’ve thought it?! I can’t handle Charlotte’s Web, I read it when I was quite young and it was all a bit too emotional for me!

  2. So, I FULLY confess to rose-colored glasses when it comes to Redwall. I had a four-year obsession with the series, from ages 8-12. It was some of my impetus to become a writer, honestly. But…I grew out of it…I tried to read the series again in my early twenties and was both charmed and disappointed. I remembered all the reasons why I loved it as a child, and all the ridiculous stuff stuck out like a sore freakin’ thumb:
    1. God yes the size thing. In “Redwall” there are freakin’ HORSES. And the badgers, they seem a little like the shark in Megalodon: constantly adjusting size as the scene requires it.
    2. The extremely black-and-white storylines, and by extension the WICKED RACISM of the books. Thankfully, none of the animals are correlated to a human race. However, in “Outcast of Redwall” there is the one vermin-type teenager, essentially, who still ends up sorta evil because he couldn’t help it even when socialized into nicey nice woodland society. Message about genetic destiny much?
    3. The problem of mice that eat fish. The mice eat fish. Diet in general seemed like a persistent problem with the anthropomorphizing in Redwall.

    1. I never read the later books–only the first one, which was more than enough. Of course that was like two years ago, so I was WAY too old for it, but it’s nice to know I made the right choice in not proceeding. And yeah, the food thing also seemed problematic. Like, dudes, all of the animals in your world are sentient, thinking creatures with whom you can communicate. How are you acquiring meat without also committing murder?

  3. Aww I loved them when I read them, but that was when I was really young. I found that even though I sometimes thought ‘How the heck does that work?! He’s a mouse and he’s a freaking badger?!’ my imagination let me look past all of that and just accommodated for these little failures.

  4. Agreed! I never read Redwall, but now I never will. Also, on Chronicles of Narnia – I like that they at least specified that all the animals are human sized. I think there was also a reason for it, but I can’t remember at the moment. If you of the Everything is Ruined Forever podcast ever get round to watching the original BBC movies, you’ll see they kept that the same. Whereas in the newer movies, they’re all animated animals of correct sizes (for the most part) which is dumb.
    Oh, and the Hulk! He totally changes sizes throughout all his incarnations depending on the situation. I notice that every time and it bugs me. Unfortunately, I don’t think there really is a specific size for him anywhere in the fandom, haha.

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