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.

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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!”

epicfail

“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.

Ash111812

“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 Anthropomorphic Stigma

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“This wouldn’t quite fit in our Fantasy department, and though we have a section for young people, I think this story would work better in a dedicated children’s magazine.”

“I would read the shit out of this, but I wouldn’t tell my friends I’m reading it.”

“Aww, this story has an animal in the lead. What a cute children’s story!”

EalaidhCampfire

What do all of the above have in common? They are actual feedback I have received on various pieces of my writing throughout the years. They are also proof of the bane of my existence as a writer. That bane is a blanket stigma that any work that includes animals (either a real one narrating through thoughts, or anthropomorphs that walk and talk like humans) is automatically relegated to the children’s story category. Yes–there are some that have managed to get listed outside of the young readers age group, but by and large the industry and public reaction is only young readers can possibly be interested in animal MCs.

Don’t believe me? Just try searching for Anthropomorphic Adult works. Or better yet, try submitting your own attempts and see what you get.

So, let me illustrate this for those who might not see the problem. It’s like having an epic Tolkien level world building in your mind all in high tech, 3D animation software so realistic you can see the hairs on your MC’s head move! You pitch it to a movie exec and they say, “Nice work. Here’s your box of 16 crayons and some construction paper. This should be enough to make it happen. Run along and play.”

Ididntdoit

Pheonix doesn’t understand why she isn’t allowed to mature.

Ok, yes, the children’s entertainment industry is loaded with many wonderful works that adults enjoy. I am a huge fan of many of them. So why aren’t we just happy playing with our box of crayons?

Because there are limits to what you can do with younger audience pieces.

There is a material maturity cap. Sure you can push the envelope, but at the end of the day there is a line you cannot cross, and a box you are not permitted to go outside of … all because your character is not human.

DonQuilypsosLastStandMixedFinished

“What do you mean I can’t say @#%?”

Alien? No problem! Get as adult as you like.

Werewolf? Well … that was human, so no biggie! Go for it!

DarknessAndLight

“Piss off, armor puppy! I’m a werewolf, I can say whatever the fuck I want!”

The spirit of a beloved dog becoming a sentient angel … (that was the story behind the opening remark). The unpublished short story that included a graphic description of animal abuse in the beginning–that’s just fine for a dedicated children’s lit, apparently. <facepalm>

CollieMemorial

“Sure, I get it. No adult would possibly admit to falling to shit about the loss of their pet. Ok, instead of my purpose of comforting them, I’ll go pander to the little kiddies. Just let me get my butterflies and rainbows.”

So yes, this topic seriously gets my goat as I go about creating the stories that I, as a fully mature adult, want to read.

HawthornandFlint

“They said don’t go that way, it’s only for the experienced, you know, mature, warriors only. We got fur, so we need not apply. Good thing I don’t give a shit what they say! ONWARDS!”

What it basically tells me is that my preference of character is not worthy of mature material. That Animal=Immature. What’s amazingly sad is that the fantasy genre is where this seems the most firmly rooted. An odd thing when one considers that fantasy readers are pre-set to toss reality out the window. Yet the industry only rarely allows an animal-centric book to enter above the children ranks. There are a few recent ones, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” comes to mind. But these are rare gems. I have to chuckle at “Watership Down” being considered a kid’s book–which some do consider it. That is a tome of a book with a glossary with unique rabbit lingo and an entire rabbit-centric mythology going on there. I don’t buy that Adam’s wrote it for children. Nor his “Plague Dogs”, a dark exploration of the danger of pathogens. How many young readers are going to be able dissect the core of “Animal Farm”? Yes, there are some advanced reading kids, but to get the sociological core of it is not a general grade school concept.

So why is human MC good, animal MC bad? Sorry, couldn’t help the reference.

PhoenixDemonDog

“Annnd how may I make you cringe today?”

I can assure you that there are actually plenty of adults out there that love anthropomorphic works. They flock to the children’s stuff that makes it out there because that is all we can find! “My Little Ponies” has an astonishing adult following including aiding in bringing some adults out of the gender closet. Serious mad props there! When the “Lion King” came out there was, and still is, a massive community of adults who create art, fanfiction, and role-play stories in that realm. Many of this include deep, mature content. And by that I don’t imply smut, I mean deep philosophy that has no place in a kid’s story. There are conventions across the nation where adults spend thousands on their costumes to walk around in. These cons are on par with other media focused ones–so don’t tell me adults aren’t interested. They are, and they crave older themed works that don’t have the kid maturity cap. The stigma cap bars the way.

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“What are you doing?”  “Me? Just weaving a complex message into the narrative. Nothing critical or anything.”

So why is that children will pick up a book about anthropomorphic creatures and just go with the flow. Yet, in general an adult will look at the same story and in the first paragraph get stuck on pondering how the armor wearing dog is possibly able to hold her bow without thumbs? (I get this a lot. So much so that I now ALWAYS include a THUMB reference in the first paragraph of my anthro works to help the imagination-challenged.) Why? Why doesn’t a child have a hard time getting an animal world but the adult mind resists?

I wish I knew. But I am at a loss as to why. And before it is said, this is not isolated to my own writing. This post covers common venting from other anthro writers. Our interest is on the fringe. Our interest is regarded as a marginal thing. The impression we are left with is that if we want our work to be seen, we need to make the characters human so that readers will be capable of connecting.

We need to make them human …

Envy

“I like humans. In all of the mortal realm there’s no better stew of emotions and ambitions so ripe for corruption.”

The take away from this sadly ventures into a wider scope. One that reveals a deeper problem with our society. If society only believes that children have the potential to look through different eyes and adult do not … well, ok, just look at the news. We prefer familiarity and dislike being challenged to truly look through another’s eyes. Writing is the perfect medium for us to explore other perspectives, and yet there is a caution not to stray too far from the norm. Removing the potential for something more mature because of an MC choice is on par with the frustration of those who try to write a non-child’s story staring a child, or a non-YA featuring a teen. These are unfair leaps of logic. A child can be the star of an adult story–try to market one and see how hard THAT is. If you see humans as merely another animal and thus animals are not that different after all … you tread a very difficult path that the general human ego is not willing to swallow!

Well, guess where I dare to tread! I sharpen my word axe and prepare to cut my niche nice and deep because I know that the voices of my characters have value and worth maturity. Some have found homes, some have yet to be seen as valuable contributions. But in the end I refuse to make the something they are not. Human.

Anthropomorphic, don’t be afraid to see outside of your species box. That level of empathy is important, especially within your species in an age with such social disparity.

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Are you ready to see through the eyes of something else? When you are, I’ll be waiting.

All artwork in this post belongs to me.

 

Vessel and the Dying Light

Around the glades near the shire of Sruth Uaine not even the wind shifted the last leaf clinging to the ironwood branch. In the dwindling light I sat atop the ode-stone watching the perked ears of my fellow Slan as they wound silently through the deer paths. Every moment the sun journeyed closer to the horizon. Every moment hope died a little more.

I longed for that sensation beneath my paw pressed against the stone. Please, let some other Traveler sing to the stones. Let some Slan succeed, somewhere.

I spread out the toes of each footpaw. I was fleet. Perhaps if I joined in the pursuit? But no. Today, the shortest day of the year, did not belong to me nor any other of the bardic order. This day we were but witness to a ritual that belonged to the uninitiated youth. Who was I, a Traveler beyond her first life-span, to steal the honor from the fleet-pawed who had spent their seasons in practice sprints over hill and dale. My fingers caressed the stubborn stone. The magic thrummed against my pads, willing me to evoke the images of the past rituals. I nearly did before letting my ears fall. No, for I might miss the subtle song from another shire.

“Traveler?” A whisper stole my attention.

I leaned forward and stared down into the eyes of an adolescent stoat clutching a pouch on her belt. Stretched to her full height, she turned her gaze out to the filtering trees. I recalled her name from back in the shire, Dochas was a daughter of one of the druids not yet initiated into the order. She was not known for her grace. In fact her footpaws seemed to have minds of their own.

Her tail bristled and twitched as she went on. “Traveler, how … how do you know for sure today is the Solstice? I mean, could we … could we be wrong?”

“The sun speaks its truth. The path has stalled as only the eyes of those who measure know.” I smiled. “You fear that the search is for nothing.”

A tremble swept through her. “What if it was yesterday? What if we missed the opportunity? What if it is today and no one succeeds? Has that happened before?”

“Indeed, it has.” It took all my will-power not to summon the images of those pawful of harsh times. She already shook, no need to mire her fears. “Not in any age that I have born witness to, but in the distant past there have been winters where no beast of any shire has managed to locate the mighty Soitheach. And in some cases they found her in the dusk and failed to catch the wily beast.”

WinterSolsticeBoar

Her eyes searched with greater urgency.

“Without the touch of a paw and the connection to the legendary mother-boar, the harvest that followed was indeed meager. The forest ungenerous. Every shire in the land shed weight in the turn of the seasons. But don’t fret. Look to the sky. The sun’s rays still blush the horizon. So long as light remains, so too does hope.”

“Then … no one has found Soitheach?” She nearly climbed the stone pillar.

Silence reached out of the surface. No new song broke forth. I shook my head.

Dochas heaved a sigh. “How can no one find a boar that large?”

“The whole of our island is immense.” I shrugged. After all, ancient dragons filled the mountain caverns without a trace. Soitheach was indeed more massive than a normal boar, but she was no mountain.

Dochas’s ears drooped. A moment later they crept back up. A paw to rose to her lips.

I held my breath. Silence, for by now all of the young Slan had pressed away from us toward the distant stream.

Crack.

We both turned and gazed into the fiery rays piercing the wood from the distant hill. A mound moved through the bracken. A snorting shuffle carried through the forest. Dochas clung to the shadow of the stone, crouching low she slunk under a fallen truck of a tree and braced herself.

I narrowed my eyes against the blaze of the setting sun. The final fingers stretched into the sky. I sniffed, but no wind carried the scent. The stagnant air denied any hint as to the creature that came our way. Was it Soitheach’s hooves breaking a trail? Or some other immense beast?

Hold still, young one. Let this be your year. Soitheach, give this one the honor.

Yes, I am too old to believe in such a notion as to her hearing me. Or even my will calling forth a creature of legend. I know better than to assume they gave a damn about the lure of my insubstantial voice. A Traveler holds powerful magic, but the elements of nature hold to their own whims.

From the pouch on her belt, Dochas snatched out a mushroom the size of her splayed paw. Gently she blew on the cap toward the creature. Branches snapped and cracked. The ragged outline of the lumbering mound of flesh grew out of the forest. Tusks longer than a Slan’s arm arched toward the sky. Two beady eyes the color of a rippling stream glimmered beneath shaggy brows. A ridge of coarse frost-gray hair stretched along her back. In her wake the forest shivered, frost cracked the ground in her hoof prints.

Soitheach’s breath curled out of her mouth and rose into an icy fog. She turned her focus toward the tree. Dochas’s paw held the offering out like the wooden limb.

I cocked my head. What a clever little mite.

Step by frostbitten step, Soitheach wandered toward her with nostrils wide sucking in the scent. I clung to my perch. A faint finger of light speared the sky. If Dochas moved, the fleet hooves of the beast would carry her well out of range. All it would take was a flinch and the year would be of fallow fields.

Hold! Chasing now would be folly. Patience, young one!

A paw-width away. Every breath of the mighty boar stirred the fur on Dochas’s paw. Still as the steadfast oak she remained, not even blinking as Soitheach’s flanks twitched. Saliva dripped from her open mouth leaving behind a killing frost.

Soitheach lifted her head and engulfed the mushroom. A string of fluid connected paw and beast.

My heart thrummed. It wasn’t enough. Reach, slow… but reach!

Soitheach ground the fungus between her teeth, grunting with obvious pleasure. Her eyes hooded over.

Swift as lightning Dochas’s paw caressed down the muzzle.

Louder than thunder Soitheach squealed her displeasure. She reared her bulk up onto her hunches and nearly tumbled onto her bristly backside. That fate Dochas did not escape. She toppled tail over muzzle behind the tree. She narrowly missed being crushed by the hooves of the bucking boar.

The forest shattered as Soitheach plowed up the hillside leaving a breathless young stoat in her wake bathed in the final blush of the evening sun. Alarmed voices called from all around, ears bobbed in the distance. Dochas lay there gasping for breath, rooted to the spot as she stared where the legend has once stood in four frosted hoof prints.

My heart raced, the song this year … was mine to sing! I bore witness. From my neck I grasped my kenaz and willed the pendant into a fiddle. Already the prose formed in my mind.

Dochas of the shire of Sruth Uaine, you shall be ever-remembered. You, and you alone by your cleverness, have blessed the new year. Tomorrow, when the day grows longer, we may rejoice and sing your name.


A blessed holidays to you and yours, with a happy new year!