Animals are commonly found in the backdrop of works of literature, serving as props or setting or, on the rare occasion, as plot point. Even rarer still are the occasions when an animal is the focus of a piece of literature, the main character and the crux more than the catalyst of a novel or short story’s plot. In modern times, an animal main character seems silly, childish; animals are only allowed to be main characters without question in picture books.
But in the beginning of everything—in the beginning of storytelling—animals were almost always the main characters. Many folk tales use animals as the heroes and villains, the most famous including Anansi, the trickster-god spider of West African lore, and the various animals of Aesop’s Fables. Perhaps in a time when people’s lives were more closely connected to wild animals, by chance or design, it was easier and more acceptable to give human characteristics to the animal, to cast the animal as the hero or villain and ignore humans entirely for the sake of a good story.
The virtue of using an animal as a character is that animals can be simplified in ways that human characters cannot. Make a villain unequivocally evil and readers are unlikely to be convinced. When reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth series, I found myself unable to believe the villains because their actions and motivations were always so shallowly evil. They did bad things not because they were motivated in believably human ways, but because bad things needed to happen for the heroes to overcome and therefore the villains were made weak and cruel and greedy to an almost comical extent.
One of the best writing suggestions I’ve come across is to remember that a villain sees him or herself as the hero of the story. Few real people will commit an evil action with the sole intention to cause suffering for the sake of suffering; everyone has a justification. This is the reality which readers demand from human characters.We as readers expect the human characters in a work of prose or poetry to behave realistically.
But we do not demand this reality from animal characters. Readers know that animals are unknowable. Whether a reader believes that animals have emotional lives just as complex as humans or whether a reader believes that animals are little more than organic machines with set instinctive reactions to stimuli, the reader knows that the real nature of an animal is unlike that of a human, and therefore it is impossible for a human to imagine.
In Richard Adams’ Watership Down, all the main characters are rabbits. Although they are intelligent and emotional, the personalities of the rabbits are limited by their species. One rabbit is belligerent and quick to confront and physically subdue other rabbits. Neither the reader nor the other rabbits fault him very much for these shortcomings: because he is a rabbit, he is understood as being a simpler creature, as being bound by his nature. The very concepts of introspection and insight are seen as strange by the rabbits, and Adams paints higher thinking as antithesis to the animals: at one point in the story they encounter a group of rabbits who have invented and indulge in art and poetry not as a pleasure but as a desperate way of coping with a chosen but untenable reality. In short, when the rabbits decided to act in a more human manner, they became distinctly un-rabbit. Yet as they cannot become human they occupy an unsettling space of quasi-existence, neither one thing nor the other.
We as readers are perhaps attracted to the perceived simplicity of animals and the comfort of that simplicity. Interacting with other people is complicated and anxious. Words and actions can be misunderstood, feelings can be hurt, and one is often self-conscious about money, or success, or appearances. It’s satisfying then to sink into the alternate reality of a book where not only are the characters new and exciting but are confident and decisive in a way that humans tend not to be.
Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories, although traditionally seen as children’s fare, are excellent examples of this animal reactivity. Little time is spent on introspection or wondering why someone else has done something: the reasons are usually obvious and understandable, even if they’re morally wrong, such as when Mowgli is betrayed by his wolf pack not because they are cruel but because they are hungry and Shere Khan has been feeding them. Mowgli is adopted by the wolf pack in the first place not because it is the right thing to do, but because the wolf pack is essentially bribed by Bagheera with the promise of food.
A human character who can be bribed by food is unbelievable, or at best would be perceived as weak and foolish—certainly not as someone who may have a weakness but is largely good and productive. But an animal who is bribed by food is still sympathetic and its weakness is not held against it so long as its other actions remain sympathetic. In the same vein, an animal who kills out of impulse, even of its brother or without adequate provocation, can be sympathetic, while a human murderer must be developed much more in order to remain in the reader’s good graces.
While animals can be used as shortcuts—and have much use as shortcuts—to tap into certain emotions or atmosphere, I believe they are not just prop characters, lazily written to the same reception as a more intensively developed human character. They are an idealization, a way to sidestep the whole mess of human society and still explore compelling narratives and struggles, a way for a reader to become submerged into a world which is totally unlike the one they live in.