There’s A Critter in My Fiction! – Alma Boykin
So you want animals in your story, or animals wander into your story, and you need to decide what to do with them. Not microbes, but visible animals, pet-sized or larger. I’ll be the first to say that I am not an expert on critters in fiction, or fictional critters. However, I’ve found a few things while writing and researching both fictional and real-world animals that you might find helpful (or cautionary). You’d think something as simple as, oh, a mule, would be easy to write. That’s what I thought, too. Heh.
First you need to sort out what sort of critter you are writing, and how detailed it needs to be. Cart horses, dragons seen only at a distance, rumored sea monsters, the cat that your character shoos off the chair and is never seen again, they don’t need much in the way of precise description and natural history. Most readers can fill in the details and are familiar with what horses, cats, and other things look like. If you are writing a more exotic setting, you might need to describe the wombat, echidna, and aardwolf a little more. However, if you are going to have an animal as a character, or have a completely new beast appear, you probably need to do a little research and thinking about “how does it behave/function?”
For example, Snow the Killer Mule in the Colplatschki books required some research. I knew that mules are not horses, and they behave differently. I did not know until I started reading about mules and donkeys that they require different tack because their shoulders are proportioned differently from a horse (for example), that they mature more slowly than horses, that they don’t run when startled but they tend to freeze, then run with a purpose rather than blindly charging off like horses. You can’t get a mule to charge into danger like you can a horse. On the other hand, mules don’t drink themselves sick like horses are known to do. I read a number of books about mules, some from the 1800s, some more recent, and used what I’d learned. I did fudge Snowy’s gait, though: I have yet to read about a mule with a running walk or paso. But he turned out to be a most mulish mule, which was my intent.
Let’s say I’d been trying instead for a pack-lizard that someone used in the steppes and savannahs. I’d need to bone up on reptiles, and I’d probably go back and read Bakker and others about the supposed characteristics of warm-blooded dinosaurs, in case I decided to make the beast endothermic. An endothermic lizard won’t need special protection from cold but it might overheat, unless it sweats, pants, or uses modified fins to dissipate heat. A cold-blooded pack-lizard would need less food in warm weather, but the drover is stuck where he is on cold mornings until the air and the beast both warm up. And he might be in trouble if a cold front with icy rain arrives while he’s on the trail. I’d also need to decide how the creature moves, if it is more lizardy (like a crocodile or skink) or more horse-like (straight line movement), because that changes how the packs are arranged. It would probably have feet with hard central pads (proto-hoofs) and semi-flexible toes so it could walk in grass and hard dirt as well as softer soil. If the pack-lizard was by nature a browser, the drover would have to bring softer food if he ventures into the grasslands, in case the beast has trouble chewing and digesting a pure grass diet. And how would the pack-lizard behave? Do pack-lizards act differently from riding lizards? David Drake’s The Forge with the canine cavalry might be something to review, to see how he uses dog behavior, then look at lizard behavior. After all, the more “realistic” my pack-lizard, the more believable the reader will find my world.
Which raises another category: uplifted animals. How doggy is a sapient wolf? A comment thread here some time ago brought up what sapient house cats would be like, and most people thought we’d end up with the Kzinti. Or Shere Kahn, neither of which are exactly charming creatures. One example, although not Uplifted from outside their own world (as far as anyone knows) are the Azdhagi. The Azdhagi descended from predators that hunted in packs, led by an alpha male and sorted by size. As they achieved sapience, that behavior became a lineage-based clan system, with the Pack, composed of all members of the lineages, having supreme power should the clan lord fail to act in the best interests of the Pack. This became part of the Azdhagi Imperial political system and remains so on the throneworld of Drakon IV, less so on the colony worlds. However, caste is still size based. And as Rada Ni Drako discovered, the Pack can, and will, eliminate anyone who poses a threat to its survival. She’s watched it happen three times, and on each occasion it chilled her to the bone.
I’d venture to say that in some ways the concerns about writing uplifted beasts blur into those for were-creatures. How much of the animal side remains after uplift/shift? I think it would be safe to have uplifted golden retrievers that worked hard, played hard, didn’t think too much, and loved team sports. I’m not sure about an uplifted Jack Russell terrier, but I’m pretty certain I would NOT want to spend a long trip in a small vehicle with her. She’d be a great camp councilor, though. “Great! You want to go hiking today? Sure, we can go hiking, hiking’s fun. The long trail? No problem, remember to grab two water bottles and let’s go!” She’d also be the one most likely to know all the ways to sneak out of he cabins, because she would have tried them already at least once. And you just might uplift yourself into the Rats, Bats, and Vats world, which would at the very least make communicating with your workers a bit of a trick at times.
And weres. Traditionally, at least in the early movies and some stories, the werewolf had no idea of what he’d done in animal form, and was horrified to discover what he’d become. Are were-creatures beings of evil, or unfortunate accidents, or something desirable? Or is it just something your character has to deal with: as you know, a shifted were-dragon in a small bathroom is not a happy creature, and neither is his housemate. Does the animal aspect reflect the human personality, or is it the other way, that the human over time takes on some of the animal’s patterns? (I know of a professor who’d make a magnificent were-heron. He’s tall, with a very dignified bearing, walks steadily and with a purpose, looks around often, and dips his head as he walks. His personality is more leonine, though.) No matter how you write it, you’d better do research into the animal in question, its size, diet, habits, and how the shift might occur. Rada, for example, grows a pelt in her full-animal (call it were-jaguar) and normal forms. She also sheds in spring. All at once, “blowing” that lovely, thick double pelt in a week or so. It could be funny (for those outside the shedding perimeter) or a major problem (someone trying to track her is going to have a very easy time of it). What if your were-person sheds fur or scales every time he shifts? Messy!
There’s as many possibilities for animals in fiction as there are animals. From small pets to livestock to major characters to comic relief to dangerous antagonists, animals have played roles in many worlds of fiction. Go forth and do likewise!
Now excuse me, I have to vacuum cat hair out of my keyboard.