Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for?

When I’m telling acquaintances about my writing, I often try to explain what anthropomorphism is. Partly so the person I’m talking to can feel like they learned a fancy new vocabulary word that day. But mostly because I think mainstream society needs to change the way it sees anthro characters. Anthropomorphism (“anthropos”= human-like, “morphe” = form) is when we assign human qualities to non-human things. That might mean standing on two legs, or using opposable thumbs. Or having a fleshy-lipped mouth that can speak words. Or it might be an entirely mental distinction, all about the self-awareness, intelligence and imagination that define humans as people. Thanks to fiction, these qualities can be transplanted into animals, plants, objects, intangible ideas — anything, really. So when we talk to the family cat like it understands? Mention Lady Luck or Old Man Winter? Suppose that electrical outlets look like smiley faces? We’re anthropomorphizing.

outlet

“Humans see themselves in EVERYTHING! It’s really shocking!”

That means that anthropomorphism works in both fantasy and science fiction. It can be everything from an inexplicable talking dog, to a race of dog-like aliens with a long and cultured history. And our media is full of anthropomorphism. Bugs Bunny and Tony the Tiger are good examples. Sometimes the nature of non-humanness is explored a bit, such as in the movie Toy Story, where Buzz Lightyear has to come to terms with being a toy, not a real astronaut. But these well-known modern icons often fall into the trap of being appropriate for all ages, therefore seeming “childish”. I mean, kids like animals and objects even better when they smile and talk, right? This perception of childishness is a modern trend. Animal characters were a staple in fables and folklore for much of human history. Aesop’s fables, Reynard the fox, the trickster Coyote, and Arachne the spider are just a few examples. Animal characters were used to add colour to fables and explain the world to a broad audience. It’s only in the last 200-ish years that popular culture has deemed anthropomorphic characters to be primarily for children. Walt Disney’s dominance in family viewing really cemented that impression, with all the wide-eyed forest animals.

Pictured: characters who could decorate a nursery.

Pictured: characters who could decorate a nursery.

Not that Disney movies can’t have meaning for adults. I doubt that children fully appreciate, say, The Lion King‘s themes of responsibility and identity. The king succession plot is basically Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But it’s easy to overlook that when we talk about cartoon characters. As for books? When people think of novels with all anthropomorphic characters, the titles that spring to mind are often meant for young audiences. “Animal books”, they’re often called. Redwall, Warriors, and Guardians of Ga’Hoole are some of the biggest names. And despite liking anthropomorphism,  I’ve always found these sorts of books …lacking. Their scenarios and social messages often aren’t very coherent unless you keep excusing them as just children’s entertainment. Which reinforces the idea that non-human characters = cute talking animals = shallow fluff. The major exceptions in popular literature? Watership Down is richly written and mostly well-regarded in literary circles (but you still get the occasional person sniffing that they refuse to read about “bunny rabbits”).  Jonathan Livingston Seagull is about an ambitious seagull, a fable about rising above mundanity and finding enlightenment. And Animal Farm is anthropomorphic, although the animals are an obvious allegory for human politics. There are many anthropomorphic books out there, despite the mainstream media insisting that adults don’t want to read them. A lot of these books fall into the furry subculture. Furry works are anthropomorphic but I don’t think all anthropomorphic works are furry. I’d say there’s a difference in approach and tone. Furry characters are often more strongly similar to humans — in body type, speech patterns, and their familiar Earth locations and sci-fi scenarios. They’re the charming mascots and the modern-day metaphors. They can often speak more directly to humans, without the reader/viewer having to learn a whole new world scenario first.

Disney's version of Robin Hood is a good example, although the company surely didn't intend to speak so clearly to niche interests.

Disney’s version of Robin Hood is a good example, although the company surely didn’t intend to speak so clearly to niche interests.

Like I say, I want the whole world to open its mind to this stuff. I want more people to take a chance on some animal character and find that there’s actually a lot to empathize with. Fantasy and sci-fi readers are often willing to take that step, but I think other readers should try it, too. They might find themselves pleasantly surprised by the themes, questions and genuine heart. Below are a few anthropomorphic stories I think could use more love. Have a look and see if anything catches your eye:

Short stories/novelettes:

The Language of Emotion by Bill “Hafoc” Rogers. A science fiction story about a horse-like alien who analyzes a strange interstellar transmission — and finds it to be human classical music. Great example of a sci-fi story where humans aren’t the most advanced things in the universe.

All of Us Can Almost by Carol Emshwiller. A fantasy story where the characters are described sparingly (they’re birds? Possibly griffons?), but the specifics are less important than the main character’s emotional journey. She questions the apathy of her species — who have lost the ability to fly — and she strives to change her own destiny.

A Left-Handed Sword by Phil Geusz. Geusz’s works often use the idea of transhumanism, where a human transforms into something else and must adjust their sense of identity. A Left-Handed Sword is a thoughtful, quiet story about the quarantined survivors of a virus that turns people into anthropomorphic animals.

Novels:

The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams. The author of Watership Down didn’t just write about rabbits! This story is darker than Watership Down, with themes of humans abusing animals, but it contrasts realistic humans in Scotland with a vivid, secret side of their pet dogs.

Of Wind And Sand by Sylvie Bérard. Spacefaring humans are marooned on a distant planet, and they encounter the native lizard-like beings. Relations quickly degrade to violence, slavery and hatred — because how could different races possibly understand or tolerate each other? The book is dark and violent, but it’s a great exploration of the flaws of personhood.

Waterways by Kyell Gold. A popular story in the furry community, this is the coming-out, coming-of-age story of a teenage anthropomorphic otter and his fox friend. Like many of Gold’s works, this is a homosexual romance with some sex scenes. But the characters are so likeable and their story so simultaneously sad and joyful, I recommend this even if you’re not usually a big reader of m/m romance.

The Aphorisms of Kherishdar by M. C. A. Hogarth. Unlike the others, this one is still on my To Read list. Hogarth has receieved a lot of praise for the poetic prose and the highly cultured alien society seen in the Kherishdar series. It’s classy, well-made stuff.

Khe by Alexes Razevich.  I’m reading this at the moment. Khe is an alien female commited to farmwork and raising hatchlings, until she is burdened with a magic-like power to accelerate crop growth, which starts bringing out the unpleasant secrets of her society. The story is an interesting blend of fantasy and sci-fi strengths, while being innovative for both genres.

Do you know of an anthropomorphic story more people should read? Share in the comments!


12 Comments on “Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for?”

  1. Elion King says:

    Some other great anthropomo-okay, furry-novels to include are Kevin Frane’s Thousand Leaves and Summerhill, and the story anthology Furry!, aka Best in Show. Sofawolf Press also has some great examples (including their yearly anthology of stories, essays and poems called New Fables), and I would be entirely remiss if I didn’t mention the Hugo Award winning Digger by Ursula Vernon and the Hugo Award nominated Across Thin Ice by Tess Garman and Teagan Gavet, both graphic novels. Lastly, more ‘mainstream’ things I would include are Maus by Art Spiegelman (good luck convincing someone THAT’s for kids), Blacksad, Dancing with Bears by Michael Swanwick, and half the movies from Pixar.

  2. Christa says:

    I feel enlightened from reading this post!

    It’s paradoxical that anthropomorphism isn’t very common in stories for adults when in a lot of cultures, their legends are based in it. You mentioned Coyote, who is a widely-known figure in through many Native tribes. There are so many stories featuring him and other animals to explain the origin of things. For example, the wind = Coyote’s brother chasing after him.

    You’d think that since people grow up with these stories, publishers would be more ready to put those books on the market…

    Also, this is me rambling, but what I find interesting too, are those characters who are superhuman with animal capabilities, AKA a bunch of superheroes. Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, etc. Coyote is the same deal too: In certain legends, he’s a man who can transform into a coyote. It’s basically the opposite of anthropomorphism yet has that same foundation of combining human characteristics and animal. And audiences adore these characters! Again, you’d think that if people love them, they can go to the other end of the anthropomorphic spectrum.

    • Yeah, it’s like human society suddenly ignored a bunch of its cultural roots. It reminds me of a teenager sensing adulthood approaching and suddenly becoming self-conscious about the things they’ve always liked, declaring them childish or not cool enough. I’m hoping it’s also passing phase in the development of an open-minded society.

      The humans-with-animal-powers thing is another good point. I guess it’s because a human is still involved? In the sense that vampires and werewolves are treated differently from other fantasy “monsters”. More blurring of the lines is clearly called for. :D

      Also, I’d love to see fantasy stories drawing inspiration from more varied world cultures. There’s plenty of Euro-centric stuff, and Japanese and Chinese mythology seems hot lately, but I’ve always found Native American mythology awesome. Lots of distinct, well-rounded characters.

  3. […] Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for? […]

  4. Andrew Pam says:

    You should also check out the Ursa Major Award winners and recommended reading lists for every year from 2001 on: http://www.ursamajorawards.org/ReadList.htm

    • Definitely! I know I’ve added books to my TBR pile from the Ursa Major lists. Actually, I’ve been meaning to bring up the Ursa Majors on my blog, since Render (A story of Aligare) is eligible this year — so thanks for the reminder, Andrew!

  5. […] Ursa Majors recognise excellence in anthropomorphic art and literature — that’s anything where non-human character(s) plays a significant role. […]

  6. […] War Dog and Marginalized Populations by Malcom Cross. A pair of novelettes about genetically engineered dog supersoldiers, who have to find a way to fit into human society when there are no more battles to fight. Military fiction isn’t one of my stronger interests but the concept seems like a great way to use anthropomorphic characters. […]

  7. […] Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for? […]

  8. […] so many possibilities, ranging from magical/genetically altered “talking animals”, to anthropomorphic beings who look and behave like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Tons of possibilities […]


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