Author Interview: Megan Pighetti (Part 2 of 2)

‘I wish, I wish with all my might that I will be fairy-tailed tonight.’

It’s not just novelists I interview here on Penstricken, y’know. Young children love a good story just as much as the rest of us, and so I was delighted to be given the opportunity to read Fairy-Tailed Wish by Megan Pighetti.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Megan about her writing routine, working with illustrators and, of course, her wonderful new picture book, Fairy-Tailed Wish which is available to buy now.

This is part two of our interview. Click here if you missed part one!

Did you find anything particularly challenging about writing Fairy-Tailed Wish?

I would say the most challenging part would be cutting down the word count. I think at one point it was over a thousand words. It is said that ideally picture books should be under 600 words. That is actually quite hard to accomplish when trying to tell an engaging story! Full disclosure, I am not there yet with my next book, but I did achieve it with Fairy-Tailed Wish. Cutting words is difficult, because as a writer you feel like you put that word in there for a reason. You really have to analyse if it can be shown in the picture or not. At the same time, I am a parent too and I know at bed time… I like to pick the shorter stories and I know they hold my child’s attention better as well.

What do you get up to when you’re not writing?

Life is always busy in our home. I have two daughters, ages eleven and eight, and now my husband is currently working from home. I am also a licensed Real Estate Agent, which I love! It offers me flexibility to work from home and connect with the adults in my life as well. I enjoy being a part of our community. As a family we love to get outside and go for a hike, spend time at the lake, or just watch a movie together. Life is an adventure and there is rarely a dull moment, or a clean house.

Who are some of your favourite picture book authors?

I love your questions; these are so much fun. There are so many that I love and I discover new ones every day. I like to volunteer at the Scholastic Book Fair at my daughters’ elementary school so I get to see all the happy faces looking at books. It also gives me a chance to look at new titles and check out some new authors. I think one of my favorite authors lately has been Drew Daywalt. His work on The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors and The Day the Crayons Quit, makes me and the kids laugh every time.

Tea or coffee?

Both. I am a lover of all things warm. I am a coffee drinker in the morning and tea drinker in the afternoon. In fact, just a few months ago (pre-COVID) my family and I toured the Celestial Seasonings factory in Boulder Colorado and learned some interesting facts about tea.

Any more books in the pipeline?

Always 😊. Currently I am working on the second book in the Fairy-Tailed series so look for another adventure staring Suzie, Dax, and Lily. I also have a couple other non-fairy books I am working on as well. Those are in more of the rough draft stages.

Have you any tips for anyone out there who might be thinking about writing a picture book?

Go for it! If you have ideas start writing them down, but don’t stop there. Do your research on what makes a story great and what makes a picture book interesting. Join support groups on social media, or in your community. It is important to seek help and advice from others that have been where you are, asking for help is a sign of strength and is a great way to improve your skills. It is a lot of work but when you see your final product in your hands it is all worth it, but the work is just beginning. Once you have wrote and produced your book it is important to focus on marketing, which is a whole new job in and of itself.

MISSED PART ONE OF THIS INTERVIEW? CLICK HERE TO CATCH UP.


Click here to visit Megan Pighetti’s website


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Author Interview: Megan Pighetti (Part 1 of 2)

‘I wish, I wish with all my might that I will be fairy-tailed tonight.’

It’s not just novelists I interview here on Penstricken, y’know. Young children love a good story just as much as the rest of us, and so I was delighted to be given the opportunity to read Fairy-Tailed Wish by Megan Pighetti.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Megan about her writing routine, working with illustrators and, of course, her wonderful new picture book, Fairy-Tailed Wish which is available to buy now.

This is part one of our interview. Be sure to check back next week for part two!

How did you get into writing picture books?

It all started with an idea that I just couldn’t shake. One that I enjoyed as a child, and I felt impacted my life in a positive way, even now as an adult. Finally, I decided, I wanted to bring the joy I felt as a child, and I saw on my children’s faces, to others in the world. Once I started writing more ideas flowed, and I realised that I had an oddly organised imagination.

What’s your writing routine like?

Picture books are meant to be short. The fewer words the better, many people may think that makes them easy to write… but it actually makes it quite tricky. Deciding what words to cut, because they can be shown in the pictures (which have not been created yet), or what expression the character can have on their faces instead of being said in words, is a difficult task. My writing routine begins with my thoughts. I do a lot of my ‘writing’ in my head. Then I jot some notes down and think some more. Once I have a story, I am happy with I go back through it again and really focus on the opening lines, then go page by page and see what I would picture as the illustration. Even though I am not the illustrator, if I cannot picture something with the text, I feel like there is not enough content there to move the story along for the reader or the illustrator on that page.

As well as being very well written, of course, Fairy-Tailed Wish is also beautifully illustrated by Tamara Piper. I’m curious, what is the process like of finding and working with an illustrator?

Great questions, I think when self-publishing everyone does it a little differently. I, personally, had a very specific vision in mind for the book. Tamara did an amazing job adding her twist to everything and bringing my vision to life. I sent her the manuscript along with my illustrative notes for each page. I tried to not be too specific so that I could give her some artistic flexibility as well. There are many different ways to find an illustrator for your picture book. I am part of lots of Facebook groups where very talented artists advertise. However, I use a site called Fiverr and I have been happy with that. That is where Tamara and I connected. She was a joy to work with and I can’t wait to collaborate with her again on my next book.

Tell us a bit more about ‘Fairy-Tailing.’ What is it and how did it come about?

I was blessed with wonderful and creative parents. I have two sisters (I’m in the middle). My Dad was in the Air Force and when we were young, we moved around a lot. My parents wanted to find ways to make each home feel similar and have traditions that followed us in each assignment. The Birthday Fairy was, by far, my favourite. I have such fond memories of how I felt waking up in the morning and seeing my room covered in toilet paper. I never had to wonder if it was my birthday, I knew the moment I opened my eyes. I wanted to share that joy with the rest of the world. Basically, the child makes a wish on their birthday eve for the Birthday Fairy to come visit during the night and they hang a homemade charm on the door. I love that a small craft is involved. It can be as simple as a few beads on a string, the magic comes from within the child after all. Then in the night the Birthday Fairy comes and Fairy-Tailes the room by decorating it with toilet paper. It is affordable and something everyone has, which is fantastic! You never have to run to the store or panic that you do not have the supplies the fairies need. When the special birthday child wakes up in the morning, they feel like they are in a magical wonderland, as they have been Fairy-Tailed. It also serves a second purpose, helping children with the concept of time. Many times, the first thing kids wake up and ask is: ‘Is today my birthday?’ The concept of time is a difficult one and it takes years to master. You want your little one to feel joy the second they wake up on their special day, and not wonder if it is today. This tradition solves that problem, which is the other reason it is one of my favourites.

COME BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART 2


Click here to visit Megan Pighetti’s website


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

Originally published: 14/05/2017

If you’re serious about writing stories, you need to be serious about writing characters. No story is complete without them. This we know. We also know that your characters can make or break your story depending on how well they’ve been constructed. Apart from that, of course, your characters can be anybody you want them to be (in fact, the more variety the better, I find). You can make them male or female; black or white; rich or poor; gay or straight; nasty or nice or even human or non-human. It’s the non-human characters (particularly animals – I’ll come to the others next week) I want to talk about today.

Non-human characters are nothing new. They’re everywhere. We’ve all seen more dog or cat movies than we can care to remember, right? Meanwhile fans of shows like Doctor Who will be all too familiar with the concept of an alien protagonist. C.S. Lewis loved writing stories which featured talking animals, while his friend J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps best known for Lord of the Rings, which follows the adventures, not of a human, but of a Hobbit. And in short fiction? Why, only last week, my regular readers were subjected to a story with a certain rodent protagonist.

I’ll be spending most of this week dealing with how to write animals in particular (because it’s ever so slightly more complicated), however, no matter what non-human species your protagonist may be, there is one golden rule you absolutely must keep in mind at all times. Ready? This is it:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, you need to anthropomorphise your character to one extent or another. Perhaps only a little, perhaps a lot, but to some extent, you need to give your non-human character certain human traits to make them relatable. At the very least, they will probably need to be able to think like humans in order to work through their goals, conflicts, epiphanies, etc. and possibly will need to speak like humans too (though there are numerous examples of strong animal characters who do not speak).

Of all the non-human characters you might create, animals are arguably the hardest. Unlike aliens or mythical creatures, animals are something we all see every day and science has studied them all from almost every angle, in terms of how they think, how they’re physically built and how they relate to others. While this might seem like a boon for us authors (after all, it should make research easier… right?) it can also be a bit of a pain if you’re remotely concerned about realism.

For example, in The Church Mouse, my protagonist was (you’ve guessed it) a mouse. In real life, mice have incredibly poor eyesight and find their way using their whiskers. Unfortunately, my story would not have actually worked quite as well if the mouse had been blind (for instance, he is seen examining a mouse trap in the second chapter to make sure it’s not potentially lethal). The easiest way around this is to do what I did — give him the five basic senses of a human. We can easily write that off as artistic licence. Apart from that, I left him physically as a normal mouse; walking on four legs, leaving his mess just lying around about him and having a strong sense of smell.

The larger problem, of course, was in the mind. Mice do not think the way humans do. I don’t for one second claim to be an expert on the psychology of rodents, but I’m pretty confident they don’t have goals, plans and motives like Mr. Mouse did – and even if they do, they certainly don’t think about them conceptualise them in rational terms like Mr. Mouse does. However, in order for your audience to relate to your animal character, you need to give them a mind which is close enough to being human for a human audience to relate to them. In the case of Mr. Mouse, the only truly rodentian quality I preserved was the way the smell of chocolate worked him up into a frenzy of instinctive, primal desire. This provided him with a motive. Beyond that, his thinking (his goals and epiphany; his opinions of the ‘idiot’ Landlord and even his concept of God) was quite human. It needed to be so for the audience to care about him.

Take a moth for instance, instinctively flying towards a flame. In all probability, moths cannot explain to themselves or anyone else why they are drawn to something as deadly as fire (do they even have a concept of what mortality is?). It’s pure instinct. But give a moth the rational mind of a human and suddenly you have a story about forbidden desires; about lust, danger, temptation and death. They know it’s not allowed. They know it’s bad for them but they just can’t resist. Suddenly we’re in Moth-Eden and the Moth-Devil is whispering in Moth-Eve’s ear,

‘You shall not surely die, for God knows if you go near the flame, you will be like God understanding good and evil… ‘ 

A word of warning, however. There is a danger in going too far with all of this. Too much anthropomorphism can lead to your character becoming a bit ridiculous, which will be disastrous for your story unless you happen to be writing a comic, cartoon or lighthearted family movie. Mr. Mouse, for example, never actually spoke. could have given him the ability to speak, but it was unnecessary. He never once interacted with another character (whether human or mouse) so it made more sense to simply write what he was thinking from one moment to the next. If I had him sitting on a little sofa in his mouse hole, reading the Sunday paper and sipping a cup of tea, it would have all got a little bit too Tom and Jerry... which is fine if that’s what you’re wanting to create but the more serious your story, the more understated I recommend you keep this. Remember, you only want to anthropomorphise them enough for the audience to understand and care about what happens to them. Think carefully, therefore, about how far along the anthropomorphic spectrum you place your character to avoid any unfortunate comic side-effects (or, if you are trying to write a cartoon, make sure you don’t underdo it and potentially create a boring character).

Phew!

Well, it had been my plan to write about other non-human characters such as aliens, robots and mythical creatures as well but I’m afraid that’s perhaps going to need another post! Be sure to swing back next week for that! In the meantime, why not get your notepad out and try your hand at knocking together an animal character or share your own insights in the comments section below.

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson, Little Miss Inventor by Adam Hargreaves, Elmer in the Snow by David McKee, Perky the Pukeko by Michelle Osment or The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Believe it or not, the last edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews was way back in October, just before series 11 of Doctor Who started, so I decided it was time for another exciting instalment. This time (though not for the first time) I’m looking at children’s books. Just to be clear, my daughter is not quite two years old yet, and so, when I say ‘children’s books’, I am talking about books aimed at very young children, rather than children’s novels.

You know the drill by now. These reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinions and impressions, sliced, diced and shredded into a few short sentences. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for very young children. They are not necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. So, here we go.

Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson

My daughter loves this book and so do I. The narrative is uncomplicated, written in rhyme (always a plus for small children) and with a goodly dash of humour which does not seem to be lost on my one year old. It’s also not without its educational value, giving descriptions of a whole bunch of different types of animals.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Little Miss Inventor by Adam Hargreaves

I think this is my daughter’s favourite at the moment, judging by the fact I have to read it to her at least fifty times per hour. Little Miss Inventor is a fun character, intelligent and not to be deterred from making Mr Rude a birthday present he’ll really love despite him being one of the most unpleasant individuals in all Mr Men lore. If I’m really picking nits, I think the writing style was a bit clumsy at points, with sentence breaks in places I would not have expected them, for example: ‘She made a back-pack-snack-attack fridge for Mr Greedy. For snacks on the go.’

I’m pretty sure that could have been one sentence.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Elmer in the Snow by David McKee

My daughter’s got a few Elmer books and she seems to enjoy them. Personally, I find this one a bit of a drag. The narrative lacks the snappy rhythm required to hold a toddler’s interest and the plot is frankly boring. Even toddler’s books should have a little bit of safe, inoffensive conflict to make the story worth reading (e.g.: Little Miss Inventor couldn’t think of a good invention for Mr Rude; Monkey lost his mum and his only helper is completely useless; etc). All in all, on the rare occasions my daughter asks for this one, I tend to sigh inwardly (though outwardly I’m enthusiastic for her sake) and hope she won’t want me to read it over and over too many times.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Perky the Pukeko by Michelle Osment

This story is okay. My daughter likes it, perhaps not with the same enthusiasm as Little Miss Inventor, but she asks for it now and again.

It’s written in rhyme, which is a plus for toddler’s stories, though I find the rhythm of narrative is a little off beat at times, often, I fear, because the author was trying a bit too hard to be clever. It is the only toddler’s book I have ever read which actually featured a glossary at the back.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson

This book is, by all accounts, a sequel to The Gruffalo so it probably helps to be familiar with that story before you read this one. It’s not really necessary though. The story makes perfect sense on its own merits. In Donaldson’s usual masterful style, this story ticks all the boxes for repetition, rhythm and rhyme. Young children can easily relate to the protagonist who initially ignores her father’s instructions, designed to keep her safe, only to quickly realise her mistake and return to the safety of her father’s cave.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Don’t forget to check out all the previous editions of Super Snappy Speed Reviews
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Doctor Who Edition Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition (vol 1)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition (vol. 2)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Writing Apps for Android
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 3)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Games Edition
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek EditionSuper Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 2)
8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Film5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition
8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what tickles your toes.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Fish by Fiona Watt, Elmer by David McKee, A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle or When I Am Big by Penny Johnson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I might have mentioned once or twice before that I have a little daughter. She’s only a toddler, but she loves playing with books (not always reading from start to finish, but carefully examining them at any rate) and she loves it when we read to her (read to your kids, guys). As a result, we’ve amassed quite a collection of childrens’ books in her short lifetime.

‘And so,’ my wife suggested, ‘why not write a Super Snappy Speed Reviews post about books for children?’

‘Good idea!’ I thought. After all, I’ve already speed-reviewed books [2] [3], TV shows [2], filmscomputer gameswriters’ apps and even the Star Trek movies, so this time it’s going to be all about books for small children. I’ve picked 5 of my daughter’s favourites and reviewed them all in only a few short sentences.

As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinion. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for young children. They are not books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. These reviews reflect nothing but my own impressions and opinions, shrank, squished and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Fish by Fiona Watt

It’s difficult to summarise this story without plagiarising it, since the whole story is only a couple of sentences long. Suffice it to say it’s a perfectly simple little story about a fish looking for his friend and finding him without any real difficulty. The book itself is also soft, like a pillow, though my daughter has shown no interest in this aspect of it. She just hands it to me and says ‘Again!’ before waiting expectantly for me to read it again… and again… and again. Ideal for children aged one year and under.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Elmer by David McKee

If you like your childrens’ books to be fun but still carry a message about diversity, you can’t go wrong with Elmer. It’s a little dated (I remember it from when I was little) but I enjoyed it then and I still like it now. The story takes a fairly heavy subject and makes it reasonably accessible and enjoyable for slightly older children, owing to its length and relatively complex narrative style.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson

Another story with a lesson, this time about appreciating what you’ve got. The story is written in a simple rhyme with lots of repetition making it highly accessible and enjoyable for small children. Even as an adult, I can’t help but appreciate the humour in this story as the protagonist, following the advice of the slightly puckish wise man, tries to make more room in her house by filling it up with various farm animals, before her final glorious epiphany in the end. A great story to read to your toddler.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

My daughter, like every other toddler I’ve ever come across, loves this book. Like A Squash and a Squeeze, there is a repetitive pattern to most of the story which makes it highly accessible for a child of her age and a goodly dash of humour. It also provides her with a sly introduction to numbers and days of the week. She tends to lose interest at the part where the caterpillar makes a cocoon, and I suspect this is due to the way the narrative suddenly loses its sense of rhythm and repetition. Frankly, even I find the narrative drags a bit there, but apart from that, this book is a must-have for any toddlers bookshelf.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟
When I Am Big by Penny Johnson

This is a sweet, if not terribly exciting, little story about a rabbit wistfully looking forward to all the fun things she’ll be able to do when she’s older. It is written with a simple ‘AABBCC’ rhyming system, though it perhaps lacks that repetitive quality which would make it even more accessible to a one year old. It’s a nice enough story although it doesn’t hold always manage to hold my daughter’s attention all the way through.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what beams you up.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

If you’re serious about writing stories, you need to be serious about writing characters. No story is complete without them. This we know. We also know that your characters can make or break your story depending on how well they’ve been constructed. Apart from that, of course, your characters can be anybody you want them to be (in fact, the more variety the better, I find). You can make them male or female; black or white; rich or poor; gay or straight; nasty or nice or even human or non-human. It’s the non-human characters (particularly animals – I’ll come to the others next week) I want to talk about today.

Non-human characters are nothing new. They’re everywhere. We’ve all seen more dog or cat movies than we can care to remember, right? Meanwhile fans of shows like Doctor Who will be all too familiar with the concept of an alien protagonist. C.S. Lewis loved writing stories which featured talking animals, while his friend J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps best known for Lord of the Rings, which follows the adventures, not of a human, but of a Hobbit. And in short fiction? Why, only last week, my regular readers were subjected to a story with a certain rodent protagonist.

I’ll be spending most of this week dealing with how to write animals in particular (because it’s ever so slightly more complicated), however, no matter what non-human species your protagonist may be, there is one golden rule you absolutely must keep in mind at all times. Ready? This is it:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, you need to anthropomorphise your character to one extent or another. Perhaps only a little, perhaps a lot, but to some extent, you need to give your non-human character certain human traits to make them relatable. At the very least, they will probably need to be able to think like humans in order to work through their goals, conflicts, epiphanies, etc. and possibly will need to speak like humans too (though there are numerous examples of strong animal characters who do not speak).

Of all the non-human characters you might create, animals are arguably the hardest. Unlike aliens or mythical creatures, animals are something we all see every day and science has studied them all from almost every angle, in terms of how they think, how they’re physically built and how they relate to others. While this might seem like a boon for us authors (after all, it should make research easier… right?) it can also be a bit of a pain if you’re remotely concerned about realism.

For example, in The Church Mouse, my protagonist was (you’ve guessed it) a mouse. In real life, mice have incredibly poor eyesight and find their way using their whiskers. Unfortunately, my story would not have actually worked quite as well if the mouse had been blind (for instance, he is seen examining a mouse trap in the second chapter to make sure it’s not potentially lethal). The easiest way around this is to do what I did — give him the five basic senses of a human. We can easily write that off as artistic licence. Apart from that, I left him physically as a normal mouse; walking on four legs, leaving his mess just lying around about him and having a strong sense of smell.

The larger problem, of course, was in the mind. Mice do not think the way humans do. I don’t for one second claim to be an expert on the psychology of rodents, but I’m pretty confident they don’t have goals, plans and motives like Mr. Mouse did – and even if they do, they certainly don’t think about them conceptualise them in rational terms like Mr. Mouse does. However, in order for your audience to relate to your animal character, you need to give them a mind which is close enough to being human for a human audience to relate to them. In the case of Mr. Mouse, the only truly rodentian quality I preserved was the way the smell of chocolate worked him up into a frenzy of instinctive, primal desire. This provided him with a motive. Beyond that, his thinking (his goals and epiphany; his opinions of the ‘idiot’ Landlord and even his concept of God) was quite human. It needed to be so for the audience to care about him.

Take a moth for instance, instinctively flying towards a flame. In all probability, moths cannot explain to themselves or anyone else why they are drawn to something as deadly as fire (do they even have a concept of what mortality is?). It’s pure instinct. But give a moth the rational mind of a human and suddenly you have a story about forbidden desires; about lust, danger, temptation and death. They know it’s not allowed. They know it’s bad for them but they just can’t resist. Suddenly we’re in Moth-Eden and the Moth-Devil is whispering in Moth-Eve’s ear,

‘You shall not surely die, for God knows if you go near the flame, you will be like God understanding good and evil… ‘ 

A word of warning, however. There is a danger in going too far with all of this. Too much anthropomorphism can lead to your character becoming a bit ridiculous, which will be disastrous for your story unless you happen to be writing a comic, cartoon or lighthearted family movie. Mr. Mouse, for example, never actually spoke. could have given him the ability to speak, but it was unnecessary. He never once interacted with another character (whether human or mouse) so it made more sense to simply write what he was thinking from one moment to the next. If I had him sitting on a little sofa in his mouse hole, reading the Sunday paper and sipping a cup of tea, it would have all got a little bit too Tom and Jerry... which is fine if that’s what you’re wanting to create but the more serious your story, the more understated I recommend you keep this. Remember, you only want to anthropomorphise them enough for the audience to understand and care about what happens to them. Think carefully, therefore, about how far along the anthropomorphic spectrum you place your character to avoid any unfortunate comic side-effects (or, if you are trying to write a cartoon, make sure you don’t underdo it and potentially create a boring character).

Phew!

Well, it had been my plan to write about other non-human characters such as aliens, robots and mythical creatures as well but I’m afraid that’s perhaps going to need another post! Be sure to swing back next week for that! In the meantime, why not get your notepad out and try your hand at knocking together an animal character or share your own insights in the comments section below.

Until next time!