said: Hi there! I was wondering if you had any tips/resources on talking animal stories?
Like, fables (a story with a moral/lesson and talking animals)?
Or just stories that happen to have talking animals in them for whatever reason?
On to tips. I have only four.
- Read stories with talking animal characters. Read stories outside of your genre and intended audience as well as those within them. Take notes on what worked and didn’t work for you about the story and the portrayal of the animal characters. This can help you get an idea of what to include or avoid for your own work. Not sure where to start? Check out these books:
Not enough? Then you might be interested in this Goodreads book list featuring nearly 400 books with talking animal characters.
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- The His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
- The Warriors series by Erin Hunter
- Figure out why and how the animals talk. You may not ever disclose the reasons to the reader, or maybe the reasons are central to the story, but you’ll need to have a why and a how. Ask yourself:
Books have tackled these questions in all sorts of ways, and talking animals have come about in fiction for myriad reasons. It’s up to you to answers these questions for yourself.
- How did animals come to talk or how did humans come to understand animals? Why is this important to the plot of your story?
- Do the animals physically speak in an understandable human language? How did that come about? Have humans come to understand animal language? Again, how did this happen? Is there some middle ground between animals speaking human language and humans understanding animal language? Maybe the animals communicate telepathically? Maybe the animals or the humans wear some kind of technology…?
- How does communication between humans and animals change how humans treat animals in your story? Vice versa?
- Or perhaps the story is only animals talking to each other. If so, how do these animals communicate with each other, how sophisticated is the communication, and why are they communicating this way?
- Do some animals possess the ability to “talk” while others don’t? If so, why?
- Why is it necessary for you, the writer, to include talking animals in your story? What does this accomplish?
- Decide the level of intellect you will give your animals. For example, if your characters are dogs, are they, say, limited to the brain power of a dog, or do they have some preternatural intellect which allows them to communicate more fluently than a dog might be able to manage? There’s a huge difference between the crude utterances of Manchee, a relatively realistic dog character in The Knife of Never Letting Go and the intellectual fluency exhibited by Aslan, an allegorical lion character in The Chronicles of Narnia. The level of intellect these talking animals have should be informed, at least in part, by the answers to the why and how questions I listed earlier as well as by your own understanding of these characters’ real-world counterparts.
- Study the animals you plan to include. The talking animals of Animal Farm exhibit personality traits based on Orwell’s observations of them. Sheep are not all that intelligent in the real world to begin with, so Orwell’s sheep are not all that intelligent. They are easily fooled, prone to distraction, think in absolutes, and have bad memories. These are personality traits which Orwell could bestow on his sheep characters based on his observations of sheep in the real world. (There’s another symbolic level of Orwell's Animal Farm fable, but we’ll leave it at that for now.)
Observe your animal character’s real-world counterpart, if they have one. What are these animals like? If you can observe and take notes on these animals in person, do so. Read about them. Study them. Know their limitations and how you plan to overcome them (or not). Know their strengths and weaknesses. Develop your animal character’s voice and personality based on your understanding of the animal in the real world.
It might also be useful to consider any symbolic meaning your chosen animal has historically taken on as well as any personality traits that are generally attributed to that animal, deserved or no. For example, in much of Western culture, owls are wise, elephants have excellent memories, foxes are sly, and dogs are loyal. It might be helpful to know these stereotypes as you write, either to use them to reinforce your character development or to subvert them.
That is just my two cents. I’m sure other writers will comment with their own advice on this post, so I invite you to read their thoughts on this subject as well.
Thanks for your question!