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“ANIMAL” POV? Pet Peeves from a Behavior Expert

  
Both new writers and experienced authors find the idea of animal viewpoint appealing, but the technique is much more difficult than you might think. Today nearly every genre, from YA and romance, to horror and mystery/thriller, will find an animal character often with his/her own chapters and story line.

There are times I cringe when reading some books, though. Personally, I’m not a fan of ‘talking’ animals but it can be done very well particularly in urban fantasy. After all, human shape shifters simply take on the appearance and characteristics of a particular animal, and therefore retain much of the human traits. Before anything else, decide if your character will be a “talking person in a fur coat” or actually more animal-centric, and be consistent.

If you want the animal character to be as real as possible, you need to know the animal. Avoid these “pet peeves” so you won’t hiss off your readers.

Body Conformation
Be familiar with the real animal. What’s the creature’s size, weight, lifespan? Stalker or grazer, runs down prey or ambushes ankles, is a vegetarian or carnivore? Animal bodies evolve to best suits survival so understanding what’s on the dinner table offers you lots of material for characterization.

How They Communicate
We very easily fall into the habit of giving voice—literally—to animals. But it can be much more challenging, rich and unique to put yourself into their “paws” and communicate in a species-appropriate way.

Think beyond vocalizations. That’s just a tiny portion of most animal language. Cats and dogs, for example, “speak” with body language of tail semaphore, ear position, body juxtaposition (facing forward or sideways or leaning back, play bow, tummy up, meta-signals, etc). They even “speak” with the position of whiskers and elevation of the fur, as well as scent signals. Cats rub against and scratch objects as well as use pee and poop to communicate with scent. Don’t limit yourself to whines, hisses, screams and the like. Whatever creature that populates your stories, be sure to include its naturally rich language.

Sensory Ability
Many of us—myself included—tend to rely in our writing on sight. Animals also have great vision, but remember to take into account the literal viewpoint of the critter. A cat that’s only eight inches tall won’t see the same panorama as a human that stands over five feet. Also, cat and dog field of vision is very different than peoples. Find out about the visual acuity—are your animals near sighted, far sighted, do they see the same color spectrum or have better/worse acuity at night?

Smell sense and hearing acuity are much more important to cats and dogs than they are to people. The same is true for most animals. Again, find out what range of hearing your critter has, and be sure to use that in your animal point of view. An animal character can have what seems nearly super-powers by “smelling” fear, for example, or being aware of emotional changes in others. My dog viewpoint character can hear the other side of phone conversations—he doesn’t always understand it, but he hears and the reader gets to eavesdrop. Use this in your viewpoint to great effect.
Don’t forget touch. Each hair that makes up the fur is seated deep in the skin next to touch-receptors, so even air currents and changes of barometric pressure can be detected.

Emotional Life of Animals
We know today that our animal companions appear to experience what looks like very similar emotions that humans feel. Fear, grief, joy, sorrow, depression and more can be expressed with your animal’s language and behaviors. As writers we’re told that our heroes must change, and we strive to include character arcs in all those who people the pages of our stories. Don’t forget the animals.

In my first thriller, one of the catch phrase descriptions is, “A dog finds his true purpose—when he disobeys.” The dog character, a trained service dog, has been taught to follow the rules but comes to the point where he must go against his human’s wishes to save her life, and that’s a turning point for him—that he can still be a good-dog even if he doesn’t follow the rules. He has to develop learned-disobedience, vital to every successful service dog.
Make every effort to do justice to these furry characters, give them a story goal, define what they want (but can’t have) and allow them to struggle—just as the human characters in the novel struggle, fail and ultimately succeed. When writing animal viewpoint characters, make them as real as your human characters and you’ll develop an animal-loving readership that will follow you anywhere. 

Amy Shojai is a certified animal behavior consultant, and the award winning author of 26 bestselling pet books that cover furry babies to old fogies, first aid to natural healing, and behavior/training to Chicken Soupicity. She is the Puppies Expert at puppies.About.com, the cat behavior expert at cats.About.com, and has been featured as an expert in hundreds of print venues including The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, and Family Circle, as well as national radio and television networks such as CNN, Animal Planet’s DOGS 101 and CATS 101. Amy brings her unique pet-centric viewpoint to public appearances. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed dog viewpoint thriller LOST AND FOUND.

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4 comments:

  1. All good points! I, too, am not a fan of talking pets but some authors handle the communication of pets with people and other animals very well, making it seem more natural than not.

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  2. Excellent! The first chapter of A KISS AT KIHALI is written from the POV of a baby rhino who has just witnessed her mother's murder by poachers. I did extensive research on rhinos—an endangered species on the verge or extinction. One of the main characters is an authority on animal communication—he is able to interpret the emotional aspects of animal communication but, of course, he cannot entirely understand what they are saying. The story is a romance, set in an animal orphanage in Kenya, where endangered animals are rescued and prepared for return to life in the wild.

    I'm definitely a city girl but articles about the brutal reality of poaching and the heroic efforts of those who save endangered animals fascinated and appalled me ! Besides, researching rhinos, their intelligence and lifestyle, was riveting.

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  3. Thanks Amy!

    May and I've learned some valuable tips today, especially "Each hair that makes up the fur is seated deep in the skin next to touch-receptors, so even air currents and changes of barometric pressure can be detected." EXCELLENT point!

    All the best from us! Happy writing!

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  4. Ruth, the baby rhino viewpoint sounds fascinating, I'll have to check that out. You're right, as much as we like to think we "know" what animals think (based on behavior, etc) we can't really know for sure. So that's where the imagination of the fiction author gets to take over. As for researching, I could get lost and do nothing but research. That's one of the best parts of what I like to call the "factual fiction" points in my stories (the Alzheimer's-like symptoms appearing in wildlife that then seems to species-jump to people and ....) But that would give away some of the thrilling surprises HIDE AND SEEK. *s*

    Hi KC, thanks for your kind words. May (a Schnauzer?) would make a terrific canine spy! People don't notice pets hanging around nearly as much as they would a suspicious human lurking so dogs (and cats) as characters can add a fun dimension. Thanks for visiting! Hope you enjoy HIDE AND SEEK if you get the chance. *s*

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