anthropomorphize: 1. To endow with human qualities. 2. To attribute human characteristics to something that is non-human. (from wiktionary)
I live with four cats who are a fundamental daily part of my life. I know I’m guilty of anthropomorphizing them sometimes, although I make a serious effort to understand them on their own terms, and it’s more often teasing than for real.
I’m the admin of a lolcats (and other lolanimals) site, which is heavy on the sincere animal lovers, but a deliberate part of the game involves reading human facial expressions, body language, motivation, thought processes, and/or other interpretation into photos of cats (and other animals). This is, however, a game, and many of the regulars are fascinated by the realities of animals.
Assuming, of course, that one isn’t writing something deliberately playing with the idea… as a writer, anthropomorphizing animals is simply unforgivable for multiple reasons.
The first reason is that it’s poor writing. It robs your work of the incredible variety that exists in the animal world and reduces it to humans and various shadows of human traits, a boring and ego-stroking monochromatic worldview. This can lose you readers: I’ve abandoned books before for this kind of thing, and I seriously doubt I’m the only one who has. Alternatively, your readers may be trusting you to have done some research beforehand and assume that what you’re showing them is realistic, which is bad enough on its own but worse when combined with the fourth reason.
The second reason is that it encourages ignorance and assumption over information and accuracy. There’s an overabundance of this in the world already, with people passing on rumour and speculation as hard fact at high speed via social networking. This is a very bad trend for humanity as a species. As a writer, you should be championing information over ignorance, not contributing to the morass of semi-true and simply-wrong. This doesn’t mean only about whichever skinny blonde, popular only for being popular, or pole-dancer-esque singer is on top of the heap this week. This applies to the entire world around you. People make decisions that affect not only themselves but the planet and other people, and they do it based on what they know or believe they know. GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out. This, too, applies directly to the fourth reason.
The third reason is that animals are living beings with their own emotions and their own motivations who deserve to be treated with more respect than being reduced to a one-dimensional reflection of an aspect of humanity. Enough said.
What is the fourth reason? You’re subtly promoting hatred and intolerance.
Before you decide that’s too extreme a claim, think about it. Mass media hammers us constantly with artificial cultural standards: look like this, act like this, worship this, mock this. I don’t think it should be a new concept for anyone reading this that those messages are horrendously destructive, right from the young woman who starves herself to try to look like the airbrushed models to the LGBT teen who suicides because the external bullying and internalized self-loathing are too much to bear. It cripples the creative by promoting money and fame via the most recent fad over actually creating interesting or original material. And the list goes on, and on, and on, covering every possible aspect of life and trying to drive us all into mindlessly buying into everything we’re told. It’s a massive force to resist, but if we don’t resist it, we turn into drones who are fed every thought and opinion.
Writers, like other artists of all kinds, are supposed to create thoughts and opinions. At least, if you’re doing it right.
Anthropomorphizing animals in writing (or in movies, or any other medium) feeds the mass media monolith. It takes the idea that there is only one correct way to be and to behave, which isn’t valid even within a single human culture at a single point in time let alone across time or across cultures, and extends it from being an artificial human construction into being a universal truth of the natural world.
Fighting the idea of an artificial construction is hard enough. Fighting the concept that nature itself considers you unnatural is worse.
The mentality that some things are nonetheless universal is being used as a basis for laws that are hurting people, right now, in the real world: the ideas that animals have sex only to reproduce, that they have sex only between male and female, that animals form nuclear families of Dad and Mom and the kids, that animals have clear binary gendered behaviour, that the animal drive to produce young is so primal and uncontrollable that rape can be excused as a means of reproduction, and others besides, are all patently and provably and ludicrously false, and yet they’re being used as a rationale for legal and physical and social violence against people. The victims are not generic stick figures, they are human beings who are suffering.
As a writer, you have a choice to make, because even if nothing in your work is directly political, everything you say has an influence on your readers, and that means that what you say matters.
You can take the lazy path and not bother doing any research on real animal behaviour in all its awesome complexity and diversity, and project human motives and emotions into animals in your fiction. It will be poorer for it, it will annoy some readers, and it will contribute to the mass media plague that is crushing Western humanity. You might get famous, though, depending on how you do it. If the Right Wing picks up something from your work as a great example of one of their platforms, then hey, you could get very famous very quickly.
Or you can take the high road. Learn about any animals that you want or need in your story, portray them on their own terms and in as close to their real nature as we really can. Give people a glimpse of the world outside of human perspectives and preoccupations, and encourage them to begin to appreciate how broad and varied that world truly is. You can find some remarkable inspiration and ideas in animal life, which might give you some (extra) eye-catching originality. Your work will have a richness and depth it would otherwise lack, and it will probably bring animal-lovers back to you. As a bonus, along with not reinforcing the mass media brainwashing, you might even be able to make the world seem like a less lonely and hostile place to someone.
So, what’s your choice?