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Do talking animals change the nature of a story?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, May 28, 2011.

  1. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

    Let's discuss anthropomorphized or talking animals. These were once a staple of classic fantasy tales. Today, however, they seem to be associated with children's stories. Perhaps this is why Peter Jackson's wargs didn't speak.

    Do you think that a fantasy novel today can include talking animals as characters, and still be taken seriously as a "grown up" novel?
  2. Kelise

    Kelise Maester

    Sure, Robin Hobb has them 'speaking', in a way. It's mental, but they have personalities and the talking is every bit as real as if it were out-loud.

    It depends on the way they're presented and accepted in the world, I think.
  3. Heavy Thorn

    Heavy Thorn Dreamer

    It's definitely a tricky subject, and not something I would take on unless I knew I could write it in a way that would not inspire images of cute little talking, furry pets.

    Typically, I prefer it when a fantasy does the "the ancient wolves who still know the old languages, compared to the young wolves who are kind of retarded and just eat people" rather than simply "oh my god, a talking badger!"
  4. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    Depends, I suppose. Talking real animals (rabbits and whatnot), particularly in stories which are focusing on human (or humanoid; dwarves/elves/etc.) are hard to take seriously outside of a children's work. Real animals that talk and are the main, even only, characters of the story get a bit more leeway. If all of the characters are mice, I can accept it a bit more. And talking mythological creatures pretty much get a free pass. Dragons, unicorns, whatever.
  5. Derin

    Derin Troubadour

    I hate them. I try to avoid them as much as possible. Occasionally, telepathic communication with a familiar or a magic-user who can speak to animals is acceptable.
  6. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    Outside of a children's story, I think there are limited situations where it can work. As Ophiucha said, dragons and unicorns, fine. Can deal with that. After all, who's to say they can't talk? But in terms of real animals, it would need to be done well, have an explanation that gels with what we know of the world (so if the explanation is "magic", but magic in that world doesn't work like that, then nope), the animal would still have to act as the animal that they are and not as a human (unless they're a human turned into an animal), and it would have to actually have a point of some sort. Talking animals for the sake of talking animals isn't what I want to read; talking animals which are justified by the plot and/or overall tone of the story I can accept.

    The only case I can think of where a talking animal has been done well in a novel aimed at adult readers is Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. The talking animals are justified by three things: the logic of the world, the plot of the story, and the rule of funny.

    In other situations I could, I suppose, accept a talking cat who is a witch's familar provided the witch isn't the teenage protagonist because that's not been overdone at all :rolleyes: and also provided the cats acts and speaks like a cat would. Like, you know in the Pixar movie UP, the talking dogs, who sometimes are just talking to each other or whatever, and then they just stop mid-sentence, look to the side, and say "squirrel". Something like that I'd like to see in a witch's talking cat.

    Also, like Heavy Thorn said, some sort of distinction between groups or generations of animals based on the idea that they once knew, but have forgotten; again, provided it can be justified by the rules of the world.
  7. Abomination

    Abomination Dreamer

    You have two different questions:
    1. Do talking animals change the nature of a story?
    2. Do you think that a fantasy novel today can include talking animals as characters, and still be taken seriously as a "grown up" novel?

    For both my answer is yes.
    To answer the first question, I say that animals are not humans. You can make them talk and give them humanlike traits, but we (read: I) still do not identify with them in the same way I do another human. Reading about a bear being killed--even if it is a talking bear-- will not elicit the same emotional response as reading about a person being killed.
    Making the change from human to animal, and thus causing a rift between reader and character, is going to change the nature of the story.

    Now that being said...
    as for whether they can be taken seriously, I think it is possible. As a rule, I hate books with talking animals, but I love Narnia. Sure Narnia are childrens books, but they're also serious and pretty heavy and definitely not childish. So a book with talking animals can overcome the inherent difficulties and become a work to be taken seriously. I just haven't seen it happen to often.

    The major hurdle is empathy (re: #1). I just haven't seen too many writers able to clear it.
  8. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    Steven Brust also has telepathically-communicating animals, but only as the familiars of witches. He also has them eat an "obligatory talking cat" in one of his postscripts… so I think we can make some safe conclusions about his opinions, at least. ;) Roger Zelazny also does a fairly good job with them in A Night in the Lonesome October–where, again, they are familars. In both cases, the process of bonding with the familiar grants a certain amount of human-level intellect to the animal. Which leads us to the real issue.…

    The most important point is the one Abomination started with: animals are not humans. I'd place the emphasis in a different direction, though: there is absolutely no reason to believe they would talk like humans if they were capable of communicating. It's not a question of being able to identify with them or not–you shouldn't be able to identify with them. They wouldn't even share many of the same concerns, in most cases. (One of the most fun things I've ever done as a GM in an RPG is watch a druid try to come up with just the right question to get the information he wanted out of a hawk… finally came down to asking if it had seen anything that looked like they did–i.e. humanoid–but which scared the food more than they did, making it harder to hunt. It wasn't a question of translation: it was one of priorities.) (And then they had to work around the bird's concept of time.…)

    It's the same issue I raise about humanoid races (or aliens, etc.): if you can't tell whether or not they're human except by checking for pointy ears, there's no point in using them. An animal that doesn't behave like, doesn't think like an animal… is just a small, furry human. Or a large, furry one, depending on species. Which, I think, is the answer, or at least an answer, to both questions: they can change the story, and they can be taken seriously–but only if you, the author, take them seriously. As animals.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  9. Derin

    Derin Troubadour

    Some authors do claim that a telepathic bond with an animal "humanises" it and allows easy communication, which always makes me wonder why the human of the pair never acts enough like their companion's species to be seriously detrimental. Why does the bond only go one way? And for that matter, how does the nonhuman party deal with the mental strain of something like that thrust upon them? (I once wrote a character where it went both ways. It... didn't end well for her, or the familiar. They both went crazy.)
  10. Woodroam

    Woodroam Dreamer

    The last talking animal story that I read was Jonathan Livungston Seagull. That seemed fairly serious and adult to me.

    It seems to me that what matters is what the animal has to say:

    If the animal is talking baby-talk it's a children's story. If it is talking abstract philosphical concepts it is a serious adult story with some kind of allogorical meaning to the character's representation.
  11. Heavy Thorn

    Heavy Thorn Dreamer

    I want to read a story where people talk like animals. Bark.
  12. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    Talking animals are one of those cliches I like when used well but do not use myself. There's just no way these would fit into my magic system.

    I do have Lerca-born animals who are able to communicate with humans mentally however, but they are neither normal animals nor able to talk.
    And some people have magical abilities to communicate with animals but they're only transmitting feelings (and use their own to influence the animal.) That's is acutally happening between humans and domesticated animals in a way, such as horses getting scared if their rider is, I'd only do this with animals I know much about which limits this to horses and dogs. ;)
    The elementals also show themselves as animals sometimes and they're able to talk, sort of, but I don't think a snake made of molten sodium or anything of that sort really counts as a talking animal. ;) It's more the "a form you're comfortable with"-cliche even though this might also be doubtful in the case of a snake made of molten sodium following you around.

    Real talking animals belong into the really fantastical stories where no one worries about biology too much. ;) Narnia never seemed ridiculous and immature to me, because it had talking animals and neither did the Wizard of Oz, the other book with this I can think of at the moment.
    The Abhorsen books had powerful magical beings turning into a dog and a cat who were also able to talk and I never minded that either, quite the contrary.
  13. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

    The instance of talking animals I thought was pulled off fairly well was in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The rats speak, but not in English. As one would expect, they speak rat. Certain people who have learned the language can understand them, and the rats seem to be able to understand English. However while reading the book I never got the impression that it was intended for a 'talking cat & dog & fluffy bunny' type of audience. It did lack, as Ravana put out, the fact that any animal will have a vastly different set of priorities and sense of time, but I think it worked well as far as it goes.
  14. sashamerideth

    sashamerideth Maester

    Preface this as, just how I like my fantasy.

    I think there is a distinction between lesser order beings and high order ones. What I mean is, Humans, dwarves, elves, and other fantasy races are high order. Animals are lower order, giving animals the use of language and tools makes them higher order beings.

    I don't mind a higher order being communicating with a low order being through magic or knowledge, but as a general rule, I like to see that segregation. As someone that likes a good Science Fiction, the distinction between high and low order makes for good stories, especially when the lines are not clear.
  15. BeigePalladin

    BeigePalladin Sage

    It depends on how exactly the animal talks, and the circumstances in which they talk.

    Is the animal talking exactly like a human, and is basically a human in a different shape. then this I don't like. unless it's done for comedy (see diskworld Gaspode)

    If the animal still acts like said animal does, but is able to speaking in a human language without becoming human, then I'm OK with it, and it can be quite epic if done right. EG: the mouse is still timid, and runs away without becoming a cowardly human. or a guard dog would be rather fierce, but would probably still bark as a preferance, due to the volume, as well as threaten. controversly, a guide dog should talk like a guide, as well as acting like a dog (generally a shortish attention span and a lot of energy)
  16. The only time I've seen a talking animal in any fantasy plot where it doesn't make the story seem silly is Merlin - if you count the dragon as an animal. Harry Potter doesn't count because house elves, etc. aren't real animals! xD :D
  17. Derin

    Derin Troubadour

    Doesn't Alanna's cat in Tamora Pierce's Lioness Rampart series speak to her? It's been so long since I've read that one I can't really remember. Of course, that story wasn't the epitome of fantasy writing, but it was a decent teen's series and it's not like the cat made it silly.
  18. James Chandler

    James Chandler Minstrel

    The biggest problem I have with talking animals is biology. Most animals simply do not have the physical capacity of forming words, and their brains are so small it is difficult to believably attribute anything like intellect to them. Having the animals be smarter than humans is always annoying to me. Most stories just use magic to get around the problem, which is exactly the type of thing that keeps readers from taking talking animal stories seriously.
  19. Derin

    Derin Troubadour

    Human-sized brains are not necessary for language. African Grey parrots have a fairly sophisticated (although apparently not as sophisticated as ours) grasp of language. They cannot tackle the same intellectual problems that we can, but they can talk if you keep things simple enough.
  20. Digital_Fey

    Digital_Fey Troubadour

    As I recall, only Alana could understand what the cat was saying; everyone else just heard it mewing. Using that technique gives the whole 'talking animal' thing a slightly more mysterious, magical feel, as well as enhancing the relationship between the creature and their master/friend etc.

    Basically I'm willing to put up with talking animals provided the author is aware that they would speak, think and act differently from humans, and has given serious thought to *why* the animal would be talking, instead of just adding it for fun. On the other hand, anthro characters - upright, two-legged creatures with animal heads and fur - don't bother me, since they're not real animals and aren't expected to act that way.

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