Monday, October 18, 2010

Animals as Characters

 I’ve read books where animals are characters. They help the sleuth solve crimes or save the protagonist by pulling them away from danger. But have you read a book where the animal is the main character? There’s such a book out right now: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. But it almost didn’t get published.
"It didn't fit any genre – people couldn't decide if it was a romance or a murder mystery," she says. "It had an elephant as a main character – and it was set in the world of circuses. Circuses? No one had any idea what to do with it."
At the last minute, Algonquin Books bought it. It’s now sold 3.7 million copies worldwide and the movie version is just wrapping up. She’s written another one with bonobo apes as the central characters.

Could you write a book with an animal as the main character? If I was thinking about doing that, I’d probably first read the article in The Dallas Morning News, then the book, Water for Elephants.

27 comments:

  1. I think it would be tricky! It would have to be very believable writing because people don't ordinarily ascribe complex thought processes to animals...

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  2. I've been reading Spencer Quinn's 'Dog on It' and 'Thereby Hangs a Tale', which is told in first person from the detective's dog's point of view. I love it!
    Mark Twain also had the short story A Dog's Tale which was from the dog's point of view and quite a reflection on humanity.
    I like the sound of this book 'Water for Elephants', think I'll add it to my must reads list :-)

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  3. I've been meaning to read Water for Elephants. Thanks for the reminder. Nice post.

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  4. I don't think I could pull it off successfully.

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  5. David Sedaris, who I adore beyond all reason, has just written one of his witty crazy books and instead of putting his family in as he ususally does - he has it 'peopled' with animals. I think it is called something like 'Chipmunk desires relationship with Squirrel' or something like that. I haven't read it yet (waiting for soft cover) but I will. I'm not all that big on the practice as a whole. I like animals but jeesh. Didn't like Watership Down and won't read Yann Martel's newest which does the same.

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  6. I don't think I could do it, but when it's done right, wow, what a perspective they bring. Your post brings to mind The Art of Racing in the Rain, all told through a dog's voice, and very well done.

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  7. Jan, I had forgotten Watership Down and I loved reading that book in college.

    I'm not sure I could pull off using an animal as the main character. Would he have human reasoning and understanding? If so, then why am I writing from his head instead of a person's? I know plenty of writers who use animals as characters and it works (like Susan Wittig Albert). I think I could pull it off, but not sure I would have a reason to do it.

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  8. I don't think I could do it, but Water for Elephants was one of my favorite books of the last few years.
    Karen

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  9. I'm glad Algonquin bought that title - I just read it and I loved it!

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  10. Now I'm super intrigued about reading this book. I have no idea if I could or would write with a main character being not human because I can't imagine doing so genuinely. The only way to do so would be to subject the creature to my humanity leaving me wondering whether or not that who that did a greater disservice to. Thanks for sharing, Helen. Time to see if my library has it. :)

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  11. I love that a book that no body could find a place for, made a huge place for itself. Good for it!!

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  12. It's hard enough writing from another person's point of view, much less an animal's so I don't think I'll try it.

    I generally shy away from stories with animals as the main character because I need to be convinced I am really reading about an animal and not a furry human. Too often the writer slips into anthropomorphizing, which I can't stand unless it is clearly an allegory like Animal Farm.

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  13. Wow! I don't think I could do that - what about internal dialogue? Writing about humans is complicated enough!

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  14. I agree with y'all. It probably is a good book, since people seem to like/love it, but I wonder if the lead is more human than animal. Guess I won't know unless I read it.

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  15. The first book that comes to my mind is Animal Farm by George Orwell. Cool book, read it many years ago. I don't think I will ever write anything with animals my self >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  16. You mean like Watership Down? I might be able to do it.

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  17. There are several middle grade books that way. Watership Down was one of my favorite books as a kid, and my son really loved the Warrior series (the feral cats and their various tribes that don't get along so well).

    It actually could make a very clever Cozy Mystery set-up... think of a dithering older man or woman who thinks they are solving crimes, but really it is their cat or dog--really could be quite clever... Definitely would require a lot of skill for any genre that wasn't meant to be sort of 'light' though.

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  18. There was a phase of my adolescence when all I wanted to read were stories with animal main characters. Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, Traveller, Tailchaser's Song, Tomorrow's Sphinx, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Piper at the Gate are just a few that I remember well enough to rattle off the top of my head.

    All of them were anthropomorphized to various degrees, "furry humans" as one commenter put it. The only book I've ever read which REALLY achieved an animal mindset was Raptor Red by Robert Bakker. The dinosaurs didn't talk to each other, they didn't have names, and they didn't have deep thoughts. Just hunt, eat, mate, live. They really were beasts.

    Whether I could convincingly write an animal main character is another question. I'm not adverse to trying it someday, when the right story grows in my mind. It would definitely be a challenge.

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  19. I'm not sure that I could pull this off successfully, but I have the greatest respect for authors who can. I keep hearing so much about this book, I know I need to get it.

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  20. I don't think I could pull if off to have an animal as a character. Amazing to learn of millions of sales for this Algonquin release! Thanks for an interesting post.

    Monti
    MaryMontagueSikes

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  21. I’ve heard that’s a really good book, but I haven’t read it yet. I don’t think I could actually write a novel with an animal as a main character.

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  22. I could write a book with an animal as a main character, but I think I would probably give him human traits.

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  23. Since none of us knows how animals think--or even if they really do--and we ARE humans, I guess an animal main character would have to possess human traits.

    Sounds like quite a challenge. I'll have to think about it some more...

    Kudos to people who do so successfully--or who even try.

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  24. I'd love to! Black Beauty was one of my favorite books as a child, as was Call of the Wild. One of Dean Koontz' thrillers had a dog's POV woven in and out of the story (can't remember the title). Yeah, I'd try it.

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  25. I've read Animal Farm. It's a wonderful book. Great that writers who dare to venture out the genre fiction are successful.

    My Darcy Mutates

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  26. I have written a book with several animals as main and supporting characters. Er...a manuscript.

    I guess...technically...my current work in progress has a couple of animal characters, but they're the offspring of gods and they've been pretty much already hashed out through various mythologies...so I don't need to worry overly about character development there.

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  27. Ooh that would be tricky. But to be honest, I can't imagine reading a novel where an animal is the main character either. Maybe I should try it :-)

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