Thinkin’ It Through

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Thinkin’ It Through, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

Just a dumb animal.” For how often humanity expresses this sentiment it is often more of a reflection of our ego, our need to be placed on a pedestal above the “beasts of the earth, sea, and sky”. How remarkably sad it is to see the brilliance exhibited in other creatures that is buried by such baseless remarks.

From the intuitive nature of man’s best friend to the keen perception that fuels the steel-trap mind of the crow we are surrounded by creatures of profound abilities. Abilities human often claim to be solely their own. Surprise humanity! You are special, but not that special.

PhoenixDemonDog

“In everything there is the potential for complexity. You only see it if you open your eyes wide enough.”

That Deep Down Feeling

Animals don’t have feelings.” That is a turd the size an elephant dumps. Anyone who has a multi-pet household that has suffered a loss will have witnessed the surviving pets mourn. Yes—they know what death is. I have witnessed my own dogs after sniffing the body of their previous housemate react. They grieve in just as varied a degree as humans. And it seems if they have witnessed more than one passing, they recognize it from a distance.

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Ashenpaw, Ion, and Presto

The first loss in our household Presto experienced he approached several times, close and circling. He sniffed as if trying to wake up his playmate. It took him time to figure out that it wouldn’t happen. This December when our oldest, Ashenpaw, passed on just shy of fourteen years-old from a long struggle with congestive heart failure, Presto lay across the room on his bed. He moped as our typically bright-eyed border collie never had before. Without sniffing Ash, he knew this time.

We also had Phoenix, our youngest border collie and aussie mix. She’s been training to become a therapy dog. With a mixture of confusion and caution she approached Ash’s body. Every key in her body language from ears to tail told me she was concerned about what she experienced. I have no doubt that my perceptive little girl was also reading me. She had heard me tell Ash that I would be alright if he let go just moments before. She curled up next to me and stared at Ash’s motionless body. Her canine mentor was gone.

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One of the last photos taken of our beloved silver-muzzle Ash.

Phoenix has demonstrated extraordinary perception of human emotion. As a therapy-dog-in-training she ventures into a senior community and spends time as an emotional distraction to the residents and staff. She loves her job, it’s obvious because she wakes me up eagerly every Tuesday morning without fail. Yes—my dog knows what day of the week it is without a calendar. Roaming those halls she tells me through body language which residents need more time with her. Contrary to popular belief, dogs do talk. Most people don’t take the time to learn how to listen (aka read their body language).

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Phoenix, the big girl, waiting for a skills assessment.

Now, my little girl wasn’t my first therapy dog. Before her came Ion.

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Ion entering the hospice therapy program.

This collie was a vibrant star earning his status into the program at one year old. For those who don’t know, that is very rare. Most one year old dogs are not mature enough to be reliable. Ion just was. His tiny eyes and long snooter worked magic. Sadly, my empathic boy proved to be a bright star burning out in four years. He succumbed to complications of an unknown disease that claimed him before the vets could figure it out. He is missed as he knew just who needed his warmth. It’s been years now and people still remember how he would wander up to them: excited if they were happy that day, or more somber if they needed a dog hug. He sensed. He knew.

He is not alone. Many dogs who are not even trained for such supportive things are known to develop them. Whether it is simply lying close to a loved one with the flu or a migraine, or standing next to them ready to bear weight for stability for someone who had a surgery—this last is a recent case a friend shared with me. The dog has not been trained in this, he simply did it for her after she got home. Don’t just take my word for it, there are countless cases out there.

Problem Solving Perception

Learning is such an amazing process to watch. Funny thing is it works the same across species. I always loved watching my border collie Ashenpaw work with a brain teaser toy. He learned quickly that there were treats inside.

Check out Ashenpaw’s demonstration of impulse control.

Animals, including humans, learn via association. If they do this, this happens. If it’s good results, keep doing the behavior. If it’s bad, generally they try to avoid it. But that only works if the consequence is cleanly correlated. There are great examples of complex chain behavior building. The sport of agility is a great example. And also includes running dogs in an excited state. This state of mind is largely run on adrenaline which overrides a lot of cognition. Ever had a dog chasing a rabbit that completely blows their recall? Yup. This is what happened. Too much excitement, thinking side of brains shuts off. The trick is to work with the dog and over time alter where the threshold lies. In time you get a dog that can think in that excited stage.

The same is true for the human animal. Jobs involving high stress release adrenaline. This can short circuit problem solving. To be able to behave reliably we also need to train up the performance level. Think of ETMs, police, soldiers—all of these involve moments of extreme tension. Average minds freeze up, or knee-jerk react. But with training the mind learns to control. Most of us are not born able to do this. And I promise you, working with border collies you learn to see real fast that border collies are not born to control that shit either. Which is why a good lot of them are surrendered at seven months old for behavior issues. 90% of the time it’s because their owners failed to work impulse control.

Work that impulse control and you can unlock some seriously kick-ass potential. From dogs that can work hillsides of sheep on their own, dogs who can run an agility course on verbal command while the handler remains behind the start line, to dogs who have enormous vocabs.

Chaser is an amazing border collie who knows over 1,000 words. Put a huge circle of toys on the floor, ask for one, and you get it! What’s more fascinating is that she can exhibit the ability to process eliminate. If she knows two of three toys and you ask for the one she doesn’t know, you get the new toy. That is not a “dumb animal” behavior. That’s fairly advanced learning. This border collie has appeared on many talk shows as well as scientific programs demonstrating how animals are not that far behind if we acknowledge them. So many of the things deemed to make us human are exhibited in the animal world. We have our own instincts too.

The Murder of Crows

An astonishingly advanced bird is the crow. Experiments have been done by researchers uncovering complex social behaviors.

Crows have funerals. Yes. You read that right. And what’s wilder, not just for members of their own flock. Researchers placed the body of a dead crow near a gathering of crows. They came, checked out the body, and immediately began to mourn the deceased brother. Vocalizations, behaviors like dancing, and circling.

Signs 009

Behold the mystical crow. I tell yah, if a crow doesn’t trust a person, I’ll steer clear!

Using masks, scientists conducted further experiments on facial recognition. Using a face mask they fed the flock and gained a reputation with them. Then, being careful to use different masks, the same individuals performed a mock crow murder. When they came back wearing the murder mask on another day to feed the crows—warning cries filled the glade. Same person with the different mask later approached with food and no problem. The crows had distance facial recognition and were acting as a major form of security. The ultimate “eye in the sky”.

Scientists already knew that crows had incredible problem solving skills. And that they would even choose to share with another bird rather than hog resources for themselves. They exhibited a sense of fairness. Something we often see in children that is displayed to a lesser extent in adults. Interesting how that is. As we age, we tend to forget how to share.

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As we further explore the animals around us it becomes interesting to see how often they demonstrate the ideal human. Maybe this is why adults choose to confine them to a puerile state, because it further lifts the pedestal. After all, can’t have anything threatening that fragile human ego.

Next up: Egg-istential Crisis

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Getting Lippy

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Getting Lippy, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

The power of speech. Something many take for granted. So much so that the basics of the creation of sound often escape common knowledge. Write anthropomorphic works and I promise you this is a remark you will see, “But they can’t speak without lips!”

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“They said what? … no, no!”

Alright, for the purposes of the second entry in my series we will ignore the other forms of communication: body cues, sign language, writing. Today we’re talking about the ability of audible speech. I hope you have come with a sound mind, pun very much intended.

Inside the Voice Box

Most of us talk without thinking about how it is actually done. We developed the ability so long ago it’s subconscious. Inside our necks we have an organ called the larynx. This structure controls several things, including closing off your lungs from food when you swallow. But it also suspends the vocal chords. Controlling the air flow through these flaps of tissue is a large part of speech and pitch. What you hear is the vibrations of air. We’re basically wind instruments.

Most mammals have a version of this organ. Dogs have one very similar to our own, note the two diagrams provided. The parts correspond.

 

Birds have an organ called a syrinx. A bit more on that later. Reptiles, amphibians and even some fish have a simplified version, some utilize bone ridges to produce vocalizations. However some animals have opted to be voiceless and have evolved beyond the basic organ in favor of other adaptations. Yes, this does make it trickier to support the concept of the latter obtaining speech. The case is the strongest in mammals and birds. Remember, with anthropomorps we are talking about a fictional world with either a fantasy suspension of disbelief or a sci-fi explanation of genetic alterations or alien life.

Lip Locked

Dogs can’t talk, they don’t have lips.”

Well, there’s two things wrong with that statement. One, dogs most certainly have lips. I know, I have painted enough smiling dog lips as a pet portrait artist. Phoenix shows off her sweet smile, that fur-less flesh looking a bit like an earthworm along her teeth is her lower lip.

PhoenixLips

“You like my smile, no?”

Ashenpaw, my late border collie, disproves another aspect I have heard. That they can’t from shapes enough to effect sound. Oh yeah? Howling allows a lot of phonetic differences. And this old bad boy would grumble “momma” if I was late getting his dinner ready. There are quite a few videos online of dogs mimicking human speech, albeit limited by their real world physicality.

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“I want my dinner now!”

Thing number two that’s wrong with the statement:Ventriloquism is proof that you don’t have to move your lips to speak, it’s merely easier to do so. Speech is largely the placement of the tongue in the mouth, where the tongue strikes the teeth (if at all), and internal mouth cavity shape with air flow. I am not a ventriloquist, but I love watching skilled performers like Jeff Dunham. Watching shows like this prove that even though the average person uses lip shape to form words, it is possible to produce speech without them.

Moot point though in animals that have lips anyway.

Stiff Lipped!

Of course birds don’t have any form of lip. Ever heard a parrot speak? That torpedoes any notion of lips being a requirement for speech.

Parrot

“Did you hear the one about the saltine?”

Parrots mimic human speech and other sounds through using the syrinx, an organ similar to the mammalian larynx, however the avian version is located at the fork between the lungs. This means they can actually produce two different sounds simultaneously by controlling the flow individually. Pretty neat. Parrots are capable of mimicking complete vocal patterns and are capable of forming associations if the context is strong enough, such as saying “Hello” when the phone rings. Some can form quite the vocabulary … including a colorful one if someone likes to cuss in their earshot.

As to why they copy so many different sounds including power tools, car horns, etc, the current theory is that in wild parrots could use the different vocalizations to determine where a potential mate was from and use that information for selection. It’s also recently been discovered that parrots have individual names for one another. There are unique sound combos used by parents to address individual chicks that they keep throughout their lives. Yes—this is in wild parrots.

Next time you hear a parrot screeching, it might be the avian equivalent of, “Johnny! Get your tail back here right now!”

Next in the series, Thinkin’ It Through

The Bone Connection

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The Bone Connection, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

The metacarpals are connected to the proximal phalanges. The proximal phalanges are connected to the intermediate phalanges. The inter—what? What do you mean what I am talking about?

Ok. Let me clue in those I have lost with layman terms. I’m talking about front paws. Do those bones maybe also sound familiar? If you’ve busted a finger I bet you’ve heard phalange before. It’s funny how most people commonly refer to the digits on a dog’s front paw as their toes, when technically the bones are fingers.

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You should know Ealaidh by now. Would be pretty tough for her to play instruments sans thumbs.

Which brings us to anthropomorphism in writing: animal characters with human traits. This is a series exploring how fine a line writers are treading when they create anthropomorphic characters and worlds, why suspension of disbelief is nowhere near as difficult as it seems if you think about it logically, and why this really isn’t just kids stuff. Most of my works involve canines. The reason behind that is I have been a lifelong dog owner, or at least my family owned dogs when I was a kid. I am familiar with their form, their traits, their habits, their social mannerisms… and I love them. This is also the reason why most of my breakdowns in the series are canine-centric. I have examples right at my feet.

Hand and Paw Degree

Ok, now you won’t see me arguing that a real world dog possesses a full grasping hand. Scientifically they do not. They do, however, possess the same bones right down to the corresponding phalanges for a thumb. These can be found on dogs where the dewclaw has not been removed. The dewclaw is not a highly mobile digit for dogs, it serves as traction control for tight turning, as is seen in this photo of my agility dog, Ash.

DewClawTurn

Ashenpaw, my border collie, demonstrating a wrist layout as he turns. That joint is actually his wrist. The dewclaw grips the ground allowing a tighter turn.

The tendons attached to the digit are not lined up properly for motor control. But if you look at a paw next to a human hand, there is the basis for the ‘what if they were’ that good fiction is hung on.

PawHandCompare

Phoenix, my border collie/ausse mix’s left front paw and my left hand in a similar position. Think about it, dogs actually walk on their fingers and toes.

Anthropomorphism already implies there is a fusion, an evolution of the animal’s original structure to resemble a human. If you are reading a story with anthros this should be expected, rather like a ghost story has at least one ghost. Dogs already have on their forelimbs: the entire set of hand bones, the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. The catch is that in the basic dog the finger bones are shorter, the ‘thumb’ lacks the muscles and tendon connections, the wrist is longer (what some call a ‘front knee’ is actually the wrist), and the upper arm bone is shorter by human comparison and with limited ability to rotate. We’re talking the alteration of a few features to create the ability to grasp something.

It’s funny, but spend time with enough dogs and you are certain to see them manipulate things with their paws, almost to the point of grabbing. I have watched my own curling their dexterous paws around objects and lifting them. Not enough to be considered fine motor skills, but DAMN impressive, none-the-less.

So why is the common adult reaction “How can they grab things without a thumb?” A reaction that happens even when writers have illustrated activities that couldn’t be done easily by a society without opposable digits: wearing clothing, lighting a cigarette, using a weapon, riding a mount, drinking from a tankard.

One issue might stem from the fact that anthropomorphic writers often use the terms paw in place of hand and footpaw in place of foot. This is part of world building, and is often used in a world built in absence of humanity. Consider an animalistic society, half of the world building is having it reflect their reality, not explicitly our own. Would they use hand or paw? I mean, I have asked my dogs and they stare at me before plopping their paw in my hand. We don’t know for certain what such a cast might use, but paw feels right to many of us and in an anthropomorphic world is intended to apply to a grasping, manipulating structure at the end of an arm. That is of course unless the degree is lesser and it is a real world animal narration like “Charlotte’s Web” or “The Art of Racing in the Rain”. It is usually clear in the setting which version is happening.

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From dog paw to half-anthro all the way to full-anthro paw.

Another fun fact, the general structure of the arm can be seen in a number of animals from reptiles and amphibians, to birds and fish. The bones are all modified versions, but the basic layout is preserved.

Posturing

EalaidhCampfire

“On the other paw … “

An anthropomorphic character will often be said to walk around on their footpaws. This posture is so commonly seen and accepted in children books and even classic fable artwork. Yet once we approach adulthood suddenly this is beyond the scoop of imagination. It is rejected, or categorized as a juvenile interest with few exceptions… say a certain foul-mouthed genetically modified space raccoon like creature? Apparently Rocket passes into the realm of acceptable for adult entertainment. As well as his anthropomorphic companion, Groot. Surprise, plants can be anthro too.

human dog comparison

Diagram of human and dog in relative positions. *

Animals and humans largely have corresponding bones throughout the bodies, including ‘tail bones’. Yes, humans have tails internally. The structure is a left over trait. In this above illustration showing a humans and dogs skeletons in similar poses it can be seen how many structures we truly have in common.

And yes, dogs and many other mammals can walk on their hind legs. It’s not hard to teach via positive reinforcement. I actually captured this behavior that Phoenix did naturally, now she can walk a few steps on her hind legs unsupported.

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Phoenix walking bipedal

Among many examples, there are two border collies on Youtube who demonstrate a tremendous amount of tricks including going from a beg to a full stand on rear legs, bipedal walking forward and backward, carrying things balanced between their front limbs … seriously, Holly and Ace are AWESOME!

Now I can hear the rebuttals! “But they have been taught that! Animals don’t do it naturally.” Hrm, are we born capable of walking upright? Seems to me we crawl for a bit until we strengthen our core enough to be able to support and balance the bipedal posture. Walking upright is a learned behavior in humans, and one that can be taught to some quadrupeds. Bears and porcupines are wild animals who are occasionally seen walking upright from time to time.

Dog skeleton

Vintage anatomy diagram of dog skeleton *

Of course for bipedal posture to be a comfortable one there are a couple of changes. One is the neck attachment needs to be shifted to the base of the skull, most mammal spines attach at the back of the skull so the neck flows level. The other primary difference is the pelvic bone. Quadro’s have a narrow girdle, while a bipedal is typically wider/front facing. Again, since we’re talking alternate universe, or genetic manipulation, it’s within a stones throw. Writers are not creating anything that isn’t already there, just modifying it.

The Bare Bones of It

What does this all mean? That the bones are there, we’re just talking about altering connections, and developing support systems to create the form of a stable, bipedal animal … a humorous statement considering that humans are animals. Unless you think we are vegetables or minerals. Humans are in fact bipedal animals, pure and simple. Are we specialized? Absolutely. But we are still animals that followed an evolutionary course to obtain our form, abilities, behaviors, etc. There is nothing that says given enough time other animals might not follow a similar course. We already have seen animals using tools, solving complex puzzles, displaying empathy. But exploration of these will be part of this series.

Bottom line is structurally anthropomorphic characters are easily obtained from real world sources without much change. The leap is far narrower than what is required to believe in fire-breathing dragons, elves, dwarves, and sorcerers creating walking ice corpses … but who am I to speak? Just a humble anthro-writer of role models severely inappropriate for children. Til next time …

RoleModelEnfuego

Enfuego the chihuahua, a NOT safe for children creation of mine. She has been published in an adult humor anthro-anthology.

*Images marked with this symbol are not my artwork, used in Fair Use for information purposes.

Next topic: Getting Lippy!

Reflections, Lessons Over A Year of Writing–Seriously

The world of writing is a big old labyrinth without a map, guidebook, rules … logic (sometimes), you get the point. So here is one writer’s pause and reflection over a year’s worth of world crafting.

Last year I upped my game a bit in the writing world. I worked hard on the lessons flash/short story form teach about construction and took more chances on submissions. This paid off. I had twenty-two submissions over the calendar year of 2017 with three-and-one-half (I’ll explain in a moment) accepted for publication. The half comes from being asked to expand on a pitch and write a test draft, which ultimately didn’t make it in. Alright, so the three-ish doesn’t sound that great … but compare to that 2016 when I had thirty-nine submissions with only three acceptances. This increase was due to several factors. One, by working with a writers group I got better at the core craft. The stories I am churning out now are stronger and more focused thanks to their feedback and support. Two, I have gotten better at selecting the markets I was sending to instead of the scatter-shot of the first year. Three, luck. Never discount luck when submitting.

Alright, now anyone who knows me is well aware I like a meatier story. Novel length is where my plotting side goes to. Applying the lessons of short story format I have found it a bit easier to approach newer ideas on formation, and editing is a touch easier. But this is simple improvement that happens with time … let’s get into the nitty gritty in no real order of importance.

Lesson One: there is a story in everything! Some are flashes, some are shorts, and some are too large to be contained. The trick is realizing when you’re shoe-horning a big scope tale into a flash and instead of cramming, let it breathe! This year I grew frustrated with a short story that I have been trying to get out into the world for about two years. Every time it comes back. I asked my writers group to no-holds barred give it a rending and let me know what was triggering the rejections. The verdict came back from my trusted readers: There is more than one story in here–either cut back to one or expand on this other one. I scratched my head for MONTHS over this feedback as I couldn’t decide what to do. Then … Christmas came, and on the Eve at the stroke of midnight I lost my beloved silvermuzzled border collie, Ashenpaw. In my grief I wrote another story of an angel dog, joining Ion’s “Chain Lightning” … and it dawned on me. There IS more to this story. A whole lot more. 2018’s project is now to forge a full novel out of my vision of what happens when our beloved dogs pass on.

AshandIonAngels

Ion and Ashenpaw, the real inspiration behind the Ethereal Dogs Project, my WIP

Lesson Two: a writers group is invaluable. Writing is a grueling and lonely craft. Suffering the lows together helps. In the shorter format acceptance percentages average close to 1% or LESS. That means you are bound to see a lot of rejections even if you rock! This can be for many reasons: wrong tone for their collection, another story like it, editor had a bad day etc. Could have nothing to do with your skills. So you have to be able to gauge how you’re really doing. A good group will share success and failures, give honest and valued feedback, and ultimately teach you to start finding your writing self. Not every piece of feedback will work for you. 😉 Not everyone is Hemingway or King … which leads me to three.

Lesson Three: there is a lot of information on How To … out there, you CAN’T follow it all. So don’t! Learning how to critically evaluate these tidbits is important. But we can’t (and shouldn’t) all write like Hemingway! What makes for great King suspense/horror doesn’t work so great for Tolkien fantasy fans. The key is finding the elements you like to read and want in your stories then learn how to implement them. Good beta-readers in a writing group are awesome for this. You’ll be able to see what come across and what trips them up. You will also find loads of articles out there about adverbs/adjectives, ellipsis, dream sequences, prologues, dialog tags (said vs bookisms)–I could go on for an Illiad length saga. The point is everyone has an opinion. You won’t be able to satisfy everyone, nor should you try. Learn the basic rules, then learn how to stylistically break them. Good fiction isn’t written with pristine grammar. After all, in common English we break the rules all over the place. A grammar correct book can be boring. The key is to present your work in a way that the prose doesn’t get in the way of itself–see, I don’t mean free reign to do whatever you want, the result must be clear to readers. Again, betas who know you will help here. I’m not everyone’s cup of coffee in that I tend toward the purple-prose end. But this is my natural writer’s voice. In revisions I catch the areas that nag, but leave the rest because it suits my work. Style is something that comes with time. You can’t force it. Let it come.

Lesson Four: writing frequently helps, especially when you let the pressure off yourself. Do a fun short challenge. Use a random prompt and see what comes out of it. In a writers group do raw challenges with little clean-up time before posting to see what comes naturally. You learn a LOT by doing this. What comes to you first? How do you build a story (character, setting, threat)? What elements are you good at? What elements do you struggle with? These tidbits will aid you in identifying what your strengths are weaknesses are. Some writers are great at dialog, some are great at beginnings, some at endings, or actions sequences, or non-action scene buildings … etc. Use excercises like this to learn who you are as a writing. You can take these dabblings and expand them later if you love the idea.

Lesson Five: be fearless in your own space. Don’t restrict yourself. You have an idea? Explore it. You don’t have to show anyone if you don’t want. But you never know what comes from just exploring. A simple meandering story can turn onto a path you never would have thought of and spark a whole new adventure. Every page is a blank map of a world, don’t be afraid to simply wander for a bit. Editing is where you refocus after the discovery.

Lesson Six: be YOU. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Get it onto the proverbial page anyway you can, however long it takes. Don’t let anyone tell you not to. And if they do–they aren’t your audience. Writing takes bravery when we share our visions with the world. This isn’t easy, but if the story isn’t what you wanted to say it won’t come across right, from the heart. Keep your convictions. To me there is an older audience out there seeking animal-centric stories. I will write it, they will come.

Remember–there is no map, this journey is yours. Take the step, and the one after, and the one after that … see you on the road!