Saturday 27 March 2021

Animal Stories by Claire Fayers

My critique group has started doing writing exercises as part of the monthly zoom meetings, and last month, author Chloe Heuch gave us a set of animal photographs and challenged us to pick one and write something from the animal's point of view.

Given that I've written a whole book from an animal's perspective, I should be good at this. In fact, I was terrible. Faced with a picture of a bee, all I could think of was, 'I am a bee.'

It turned out, I wasn't the only one who had problems. In our discussion afterwards, at least one person said they disliked the idea of anthropomorphising animals, and they found it hard to do. 

I particularly dislike descriptions of human body language pasted onto animals. The moment I read that an animal frowns or smiles I mentally trip up, because animals don't do that sort of thing. When I wrote Storm Hound, I challenged myself to remove all human body language and I think I succeeded, though it led to a lot of tail wagging and ears pricking instead. But, if we're being pedantic, animals don't experience human emotion, either, or have human thoughts. The moment we start writing a story from an animal's viewpoint, we are guilty of anthropomorphising. 

So why write from an animal's point of view at all? The plethora of animal-based picture books suggests that animal stories are particularly accessible to readers - and it's not just picture books, either. Animal stories go all the way back the earliest tales we told. Folklore and fairytales are full of them, from the spider trickster Anansi to the red-eared, Welsh hounds of Annwn. There is clearly something about these stories that connects with our own experience of the world.

When I wrote Storm Hound, I was drawn instantly to Storm's frustration with a world that refused to take him seriously. Storm is actually a mythical creature trapped in the body of a puppy so it's one step removed again from animal stories. I'm also reminded of Watership Down which uses rabbits to explore different political systems (maybe that's just my reading of it) and John Wyndham's 'Consider Her Ways' where a future human society is modelled on ants. And, of course, when George Orwell wanted to critique Communism, he did it using animals.

Maybe then, the anthropomorphism is the whole point. We write about animals because we want to say something about ourselves. What do you think?

Finally, if you'd like to have a go at the writing exercise, here are a few pictures to get you started.

Claire Fayers writes fantasy and adventure stories for 7-12 year-olds. Some of them feature animals. Her new collection of Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, published by Scholastic is out now.


Abbeybufo said...

I'm reminded of Diana Wynne Jones's Dogsbody - in which the mythical persona of Sirius the dog star is trapped in the body of a 'real' dog.

Susan Price said...

A very interesting post, Claire. I'd agree that it's difficult to write convincingly from an animal's point of view and even more from that of an insect -- how do bees think? Do they think and what do they think of? Nectar and pollen, presumably, most of the time. Possibly they feel a pressing need to get home to the grubs. But it's hard to tell.

However, when it comes to mammals, at least, I question that 'animals don't have human emotions.' Darwin thought they did.

Humans are animals, so why wouldn't they share a range of emotions with other animals? Humans have probably refined their emotional responses through culture -- and bang on about them more than, say, foxes or hedgehogs do. But my guess would be that the range of emotions is the same, if simplified.

But hedgehogs smiling and frowning -- no! In complete agreement with you there.

Andrew Preston said...

",,, But, if we're being pedantic, animals don't experience human emotion.. ".

I prefer the starting point of Charles Darwin...

"There is no fundamental difference between man and animals in their ability to feel pleasure and pain, happiness, and misery."

Claire Fayers said...

You're both right; I worded that badly. Maybe it's more correct to say that non-human animals don't have the same internal life as humans. They do have an internal life, of course, but when we try to depict it, we inevitably project our own thought processes onto them.

I came across Dogsbody when I was writing Storm Hound, and deliberately put off reading it until I'd finished writing so I wouldn't be influenced by it. It's a terrific book - surprisingly dark for the age group, but Diana Wynne Jones always has the capacity to surprise.