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Animal Characters In Novels, by Jennifer Scoullar

‘So your stories have animal characters. I didn’t know you wrote children’s books?’

I get this a lot, and it’s a puzzle. The assumption is that, as adults, we’re somehow supposed to have outgrown our emotional connection to the animal world. That hasn’t happened to me. I’m as alive now to the voices and possibilities of animals as I ever was, and fortunately my readers are too.

There is a proud tradition of animal characters in adult fiction. Early examples are the Houyhnhnms, a race of civilised horses in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the birds, ants and fish in TH White’s The Once And Future King and perhaps the greatest animal character of all time, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. However in the twentieth century it became unfashionable to portray fictional animals, except in children’s literature. It became even more unfashionable to attribute any form of emotion to them. (Interestingly, recent research on dolphins and elephants suggests that they may well experience a wider range of emotions than humans.) Nevertheless, anthropomorphism became a pejorative term.

Thankfully there are always authors who defy convention. So we have the tortured rabbits of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. We have the marvellous dogs of David Wroblewski’s The Tale Of Edgar Sawtelle and Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy. Cormac McCarthy writes from the point of view of a wolf in The Crossing. This powerful excerpt fills us with dread and admiration, without ever becoming sentimental:

“She carried a scabbed-over wound on her hip where her mate had bitten her two weeks before somewhere in the mountains of Sonora. He’d bitten her because she would not leave him. Standing with one forefoot in the jaws of a steel trap and snarling at her to drive her off where she lay just beyond the reach of the chain. She’d flattened her ears and whined and she would not leave. In the morning they came on horses. She watched from a slope a hundred yards away as he stood up to meet them.”

Then, of course, there’s Only The Animals by Ceridwen Dovey, which has been long-listed for this year’s Stella Prize. In this astonishing anthology, the souls of ten animals who died in human conflicts over the last century tell their own stories. The old taboo against anthropomorphism is lifting, and it’s a fine thing.

When building an animal character, I first learn as much as I can about its life. As an amateur naturalist from way back, this is a great joy for me. I love nothing more than immersing myself in the world of a brumby, or dolphin, or even an octopus. (I have an octopus character in my March 25th release Turtle Reef.) I then build my animal character. I invent a back-story, motivation and personality based on what I’ve learned of the species. As with any other character, not all of this invention will find its way onto the page but I keep it in mind as I write.

This kind of thoughtful, balanced anthropomorphism helps us recognise the kinship shared by humans and animals. An example is the recent documentary film Blackfish, telling the story of Tilikum, a troubled, captive Orca who killed several of his trainers. It’s a heart-wrenching tale that has us sympathising with the whale. This couldn’t happen if we weren’t given some insight into Tilikum’s emotional plight.

There are two important things to keep in mind when writing animals for adults. Firstly, you need a strong reason for having a non-human character. It must further the plot or reinforce your theme in a way no person can. Secondly, you must balance animal and human traits in a sensitive and respectful way that suits your particular story. Readers should be able to empathise with the animal character, while still recognising its unique differences.

I have a few novels in my bottom drawer that were rejected because of animal points of view. Yet the wild popularity of rural fiction is largely due to the prominent role animals and nature play in the genre. Maybe I should dust off those manuscripts? Readers, particularly ones living in the concrete jungles of our cities, are hungry to re-engage with the natural world. They love animal characters. It seems the publishing world is finally catching up with them.


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Jennifer Scoullar - Brumby's RunJennifer Scoullar - Billabong BendJennifer Scoullar - Billabong BendJennifer Scoullar - Turtle Reef     Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book cover

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a lovely post. I’ve enjoyed many books where animals are main characters, and the rawness of their experience is very adult indeed. There is nothing fluffy, for instance, about the hawk in H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald. The book is a reckoning with death, and nature red in tooth and claw. I used horses in my own second novel, Lifeform Three, to embody the power of memory, individuality and trust in a world where electronics and algorithms do most of our thinking and remembering – and even our living.
    Good luck with your book, Jennifer – I’m tweeting this.

    March 24, 2015
  2. Thanks very much Roz. Couldn’t agree with you more!

    March 25, 2015
  3. Wonderful to see other writers with animal characters. My current WIP is written primarily from the POVs of horses, with a few humans as secondary characters. Having lots of fun with it!

    April 4, 2015
  4. Great post, Jen. We do share a love of horses (and dogs!) Imagine that book of Paula’s (above comment) – from a horse’s POV. Humans are secondary. I like that!

    May 5, 2015
    • Thanks :-). There are unicorns and dragons too, though not in their usual stereotypes.

      May 15, 2015

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