The manticore under the bed – writing animals

Posted: December 19, 2013 in writing
Tags: , , , ,

My brother’s cat is angry with me.

She’s staying with us for a week over Christmas, and when I brought her into the house for the first time she prowled for five minutes then completely vanished. An hour later I found her sulking under the bed in the back room. She glared at me but otherwise failed to acknowledge my presence or my attempts to coax her out to a warmer, more comfortable spot.

I guess she likes sudden change as much as most people do.

It’s easy to forget when writing animals that they have their own personalities. I’m about to write a scene where my potagonist fights a manticore. My previous monster fighting scenes have treated the creatures more as forces of nature than characters, just something to be overcome. This time I’ll try to think about the manticore’s intentions – what it likes, what it fears, how it feels about being screamed at by an arena crowd. Finding ways to show that should make its actions more interesting and the scene more exciting.

Maybe the manticore also wants to hide under the bed.

  1. glenatron says:

    The story I’ve been working on in the background for a while now ( with minimal amounts to show for it ) is partly an attempt to dispel the “hairy motorbike” approach to writing horses, which is prevalent in fantasy writing. All animals have their own needs and wants and even if you just characterise those in terms of safety and food, you would be covering more than most writers ever get around to. See also somewhere an equestrian is crying ( caution: TVTropes ).

  2. skudssister says:

    Although it may be worth not mentioning manticores under the bed to Sophie or your neices. I don’t think they’d be scared but may want to head under the bed themselves to sort it out for you.
    And it could be worse – our cat, in her own home and with no additional stresses we can see has decided that the kitchen floor is her new litter tray….

  3. The main character in the book I am writing is basically my dog who suddenly finds himself changed into a human. It has made me do a lot of thinking about what is going on inside Gadget’s brain. I think it will definitely add interest to anthropomorphize your manticore.

    • glenatron says:

      Is it necessary to anthropomorphise an animal in order to give it personality?

      • I think there are two ways to approach writing animals – anthropomorphising them to some degree, giving them human-like thoughts and feelings, or just giving them some slightly more specific interests as an animal and showing that from the outside. For the dog turned into a human it’s clearly about the first option, and that could be a lot of fun to write. For my manticore I want to be careful not to over humanise, to keep it strange and bestial but more than just a simple fight.

        Glenatron, you’re this is clearly something you’ve thought about quite a lot – any tips or sources you can recommend on different approaches?

        • glenatron says:

          I certainly think about it pretty deeply because if I was to focus on the thing I am supposed to do with my life, I would be training horses and teaching people to work with them full time. So I have a chunk of my mind thinking about matters equine pretty much the whole time. But I don’t have any standard sources because it’s mostly experience that has got me to the understanding I have. I could offer a few thoughts though:

          The balance between anthropomorphism and understanding is something I have thought about a lot- this is my take on it, for what its worth.

          There is a clear link between physiology and behaviour that applies to real world animals – for example a predator is more likely to have forward set eyes and the ability to focus very sharply on a single task. A grazing animal will probably have eyes on the side of their head, often with a linear pupil ( people who aren’t around horses don’t realise that they have a pupil like a goat or deer rather than a circular one like a human or dog ) and their attention will be more diffuse because they are always on the look-out for predators and need to be able to attend to anything. This has consequences that are only obvious if you think about them for a while – for example if an animal has eyes on the side of their head they have a very wide field of view, it’s very hard to sneak up on them, but they don’t have stereo vision, so they actually find it hard to evaluate how far away things are. Often they will raise and lower their heads to triangulate somewhat. There is a less obvious result as well- certainly in horses the corpus collosum, which connects the sides of the brain, is very weak because they don’t really need depth perception. So a horse will see things with one eye and be accustomed to them, but it will take around 45 minutes for that message to get to the other side of the brain, so they can be surprised by the same object in the other eye. As a trainer you have to get them used to everything from both sides. These types of thing would be true of most hoofed animals, certainly.

          Almost every kind of animal will run rather than fighting unless they really have no choice. The animals that might be more willing to use aggression are ones where fighting is low risk to them- for example a rhino, elephant or hippo might take on predators because they’re far more dangerous to the predator than the predator is to them. Given a choice, an animal will run. This instinct can be overwhelmed by training and usually when you encounter genuinely dangerous animals they have been made that way by people. If you want to create an aggressive animal, harrass them and only back down when they show aggression. Pretty soon they’ll figure out that is the only way they can get peace.

          Instincts are never entirely overcome – you will never take the flight out of a horse or the hunt out of a dog. Nor should you. Animals that don’t have many dealings with their own kind tend to be ill socialised, which can have surprising outcomes. Hand-reared horses can be pretty dangerous because they don’t really know they are horses and assume they are people. Stuff that is adorable when a three week old foal does it turns out to be quite dangerous when a three year old stallion is doing it.

          Social animals are much easier to tame because they have an understanding of life around others. This is why dogs and horses are commonly working animals and very trainable from a human perspective. Cats are solitary and their relationship with us is quite different. You don’t really get the feeling a cat is on the same team as you. Also if telepathy is possible, it would probably evolve within social animals. If you see wolves hunt it certainly looks as though it could be. For a social animal, the greatest possible safety is with a large group of their own kind, this is why cavalry is effective- horses will stay together and run together because as far as they know that is the safest thing to do.

          • Thanks, that’s really interesting – I’ll be coming back to re-read these comments any time I write animals in the future.

            • glenatron says:

              Two other things that occur to me that should be on that list- first up most animals motivations are around the bottom two layers of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs- looking to survive and then seeking comfort.

              The other thing is that animals are absolutely in the moment- certainly most animals barely think about past and future ( although they will connect present events with past events when responding to the present ) they are just concentrating on what they need right now. However if something presents a danger to them, they will certainly remember, so an animal who was beaten by a man in a hat will be cautious of men in hats because as far as they know that was the cause of their problems. Once again, that is with a slight proviso that there is evidence for chimps planning ahead and possibly some corvids, so there could be exceptions, but most animals that haven’t needed to evolve largely for their smarts will be living mostly in the moment.

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