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Animal Behavior

I blogged a couple weeks ago about using animals as part of your setting, and today I’m going to talk about something else: their behavior.

Whether your character has a pet cat or visits a dairy farm or comes across a moose in the forest, your story will feel more real if you know how these animals behave and how they interact with humans. Pop culture sometimes tells us lies about what animals are like. Does your character go cow tipping? Good luck with that, because cows don’t sleep standing up and you can’t just gently shove them over. Does a lone wolf attack your character in the woods? Unlikely unless they are desperate or provoked or live in an area where humans are encroaching and they’ve lost their fear. How do they dispose of bothersome insects? What do they do about the tick that’s crawling up their leg or that ant infestation in their kitchen or that wasp nest under the eave of their house?

Horses are a good example of a regularly misused animal. If it’s just an everyday situation where your character is saddling up their horse to go out for a trail ride (or whatever else) make sure you know how saddles and bridles and blankets work. If it’s fantasy and you’ve got warhorses riding into battle, don’t forget that horses bleed just like the rest of us and the odds of your character’s horse coming out of some epic multi-day battle unscathed are incredibly slim. Your character can’t gallop a horse through the woods in a terror for three days without stopping. They physically cannot do it.

Sometimes animals interact with humans in ways we wouldn’t expect. Many animals that we consider scary and dangerous are actually just as afraid of us. Some have very specific patterns of behavior. Some migrate. Some have personalities that can be drawn out by their interactions with your character*.

If you haven’t had experience with an animal yourself, it’s a good idea to give it at least a quick google search to be sure you’re getting it right. And if the animal is going to play a large role in the story, then set aside some time to really look into it. Perhaps most of your readers won’t notice or care if you get some small detail about an animal wrong, just like most won’t care if you get some small detail of a setting wrong, but some will. And if you can get it right with a little research, why not do it?

*One of my college roommates had a betta fish that she had spoiled so much it only ate food if you dropped it into its bowl in the most exactly specific way and if she went away for the weekend and left it under my or one of our other roommates’ responsibility, it would barely eat and you would just pray that the thing didn’t die before she got back. Fortunately, it did survive us.

Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. I just picked up a juvie ebook called Not Just For Breakfast Anymore, about a kid with a potbellied pig for a pet. One of the reviews talked about how the guy had done his research, because he'd written the pig exactly right.

    I think horses are some of the worst-written animals in book history. Diana Wynne Jones makes fun of it in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Horses being a type of "fantasy motorcycle" that never have to sleep, eat, never go into season or fight with other horses.

    1. There is something about them on TV Tropes, too, along those lines. I always appreciate it when I read fantasy where horses are not inexplicably invincible.

  2. I agree about horses being some of the worst-written animals in book history. I LOVE horse movies, but I'm very particular about them. It always makes me twitch when someone stops and leaves horses tied by their reins (and typically completely saddled).

    There was one book awhile back that I read (not naming any names) that only had horses in a couple scenes. But the biggest thing I remember (besides the ending) was that, when the MC was grooming a horse, she used the curry comb and the body brush wrong. It was a question that could have been solved by a simple Google search or that any horse-wise person could have answered in five seconds.

  3. Back when I was a zoo/sanctuary docent, I found this great book called Beastly Behaviors by Janine Benyus. It breaks down the behaviors you see in animals commonly found in zoos and identifies whether it's a sexual behavior, social behavior, or whatever. It's also a goldmine on what types of movements these animals are able to make, and likely to make. I'm sure some of it doesn't directly translate to wild behavior, but it's an interesting read.

    1. Oh that sounds awesome! Most of the animal behavior materials I own are from college classes on the subject. (So, useful but not super interestingly written.)

  4. Great advice. Animals can bring amazing depth to stories, but aren't often used super effectively.

  5. Amen, amen, and amen! As a rider, absolutely NOTHING irks me more than when a writer doesn't get horses right. And don't get me started on predatory animals. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground with them in literature--they're either cold blooded killers who use human-like levels of logic to outsmart their (usually human) opponents, or they're perfectly harmless, misunderstood martyrs. Wolves, especially. And tigers. What's so bad about writing stories based on truth? Animals are creatures driven by instinct. They may occasionally show an uncanny level of compassion or intelligence, but they're neither inherently evil nor completely safe. If you ask me, that's got the makings of "well rounded, multifaceted character" written all over it. Why mess with what nature has given us?

    Also, @Angelica: I am going to get that book RIGHT NOW. Thanks for the tip!

    1. HUGE snaps to this. So many people freak out about the cold-blooded carnivores. But what are they going to do, trot out to McDonald's for 55 Big Macs, and hold the lettuce?


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Item Reviewed: Animal Behavior Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward