Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Anthropomorphism – More Than Humans in Fur Coats

We’ve been discussing anthropomorphism this week in my graduate children’s lit class. Anthropomorphism – or the giving of human characteristics to animals, plants, machines, natural phenomena or objects – can serve to broaden an audience base, especially with picture books. A book about a duck or a pig can appeal to children of all genders, cultures and backgrounds, whereas a book about a Caucasian human girl will likely find its readership limited to Caucasian human girls. Anthropomorphism can also be used as a way to approach delicate subjects and make them less challenging for a young reader, and can offer non-threatening opportunities for perspective and compassion when it comes to differences. However, anthropomorphism can be very difficult to do well, and in recent years it has been a tougher sell with agents and publishers.

Here are some things to consider when using anthropomorphism…

Keys to Success

Reason for being – Think carefully about why you can tell this story better using anthropomorphism. Kids will not be more interested or engaged just because the protagonist is a giraffe, or a bunny, or a pig. Find a reason for using these specific characters to tell this story, otherwise they might just as well be human.

Authenticity – Incorporate as many of the real attributes and behavioral details of that specific animal or vehicle into the character as possible, and be sure that their actions and words are true to who or what they are.  For example, if your main character is a giraffe, try to find a way to bring her height, or legginess, to bear on the story.

Three-dimensional personalities – Anthropomorphic characters should have strong individual personalities and clear, well-developed motivations. They must encounter and overcome believable obstacles in the same way a human protagonist must.

Surprise – Consider the unexpected. Olivia is a case in point – we expect pigs to be slobs (such as in Mark Teague’s Pigsty), so there’s something deliciously ironic and endearing about Olivia’s vanity and self-absorption. Opposites and surprises can be very effective when using anthropomorphism.

Things to Avoid

“Cuteness” – Animals, by their nature, are already winning characters. They don’t need alliterative names, syrupy mannerisms or baby talk to be appealing. Even the youngest readers will find too much preciousness off-putting.

Humans in animal suits – Don’t just write generic animal characters who live in human-style houses, wear human clothing and engage in all the details of human life… otherwise they might as well be human. Consider how their lives, behavior and world are different from ours, as well as where they overlap.


4 Responses to “Anthropomorphism – More Than Humans in Fur Coats”
  1. Beth says:

    Thank you, Emma. This is uncannily timely, as I’m currently revising a picture book manuscript (one of my 12×12 ideas) that is anthropomorphic in a way, at least is non-human. I will consider all these points carefully as I work through my revisions.

    The “avoid humans in animal suits” warning is very good — and I suspect, difficult to pull off. The child needs to identify with the animal and the animal’s actions in order for the book to have meaning, so where does one draw the line? Using the example of Kevin Henkes’ mice, for example. Do they need to be mice? I love Owen, and Chrysanthemum, and Wemberly — but is there still some innate mouseness about them?

    Hmmm… lots to think about.

  2. This is a great post Emma. But I do have a question regarding your last point. What about the Bearenstain Bears or the Arthur series? Those are anthropomorphized animals that don’t seem any different from humans. Is it simply because these are characters/series that have been around for so long?

  3. Emma says:

    Julie – Thank you for that excellent question, and you are correct in your assumption of the answer. The Berenstain Bears debuted in 1962, when the industry was a very different animal indeed (and even then, Theodor Geisel – who was their editor at Random House – encouraged them to stop at one book because bears were already overdone!) Of course the series now encompasses over 300 titles and has sold millions of copies over the years, but it has also been the subject of a good deal of criticism with respect to its “preachy” or “saccharine” tone and “formulaic storytelling.” It’s interesting to note, thought, that even though the bears dress and behave like humans, they do live in a tree, and have a fondness for honey and engage in other bear-like behavior from time to time.

    Arthur is another story. The first Arthur book – Arthur’s Nose – was published in 1976, and in that book Arthur had a long nose and was rather shaggy and closely resembled an aardvark. The other characters – Muffy, Francine, Buster etc. – were also much more obviously monkeys, rabbits etc., and this look continued through the next several books in the series. Over the years, and largely informed by the television series, the characters physical appearances changed drastically, to the point where, today, Arthur is unrecognizable as an aardvark (he looks more like a teddy bear.) This is one of those rare exceptions to the rule. All the characters in Arthur today are essentially humans with animal ears… they even have hands, with fingers and opposable thumbs. But the series is so smart and witty and appealing that it has triumphed over all its changes and challenges to become a multi-million dollar franchise.

    The thing is, both The Berenstain Bears and Arthur would likely have a much tougher time getting published today. But of course, rules are made to be broken – and if a project is truly exceptional, no amount of shoulds or shouldn’ts will stand in its way.

  4. Diane says:

    Oh gosh! why didn’t I see this post before… I have just convinced myself my new May picture book manuscript protagonist is a “cute” bear, and he wears blue overalls… *slump*. Turn around Diane, back to the drawing boards…*sigh*.

Leave Your Comment

I want to hear from you...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!