Character Study - Talking Animals

Stories of fantasy and science fiction often utilize a speaking creature as a plot point. This tradition goes back to ancient mythology. However, there’s a distinction between the wise owl of the ages and Mr. Owl taking your sucker. When does the mystical being become the Disney sidekick and when are either appropriate?

First off, anyone who knows my Funko pop collection is aware of my weakness for Disney sidekicks (as well as Universal film monsters, but that’s a different story). But even the animators of these family movies have to make the decision between simply cute or human level communication. For example, in Moana and Tangled the animals show a higher level of emotion and comprehension without talking. This fits well into the fantasy realms in which the stories take place. They provide humor, warmth, and even some plot points, but do not detract or make the main ideas feel silly. Where as in Cinderella, the mice talk in ridiculous broken English, acting as both comic reliefs and talking heads for the audience.  

The trouble is when your creature serves no purpose other than aesthetic value. You think “Kids like spiders. I’m writing a kids book so I’ll add a spider.” Unless you’re Mercier Mayer, that isn’t really how it works. Character Osidekicks should always serve a role and have point. They should not just be an excuse to sell plush (I’m looking at you Barbie movies). 

A good modern example of an animal sidekick who cute, cuddly, and can be used as a plot device is Mouse, the Temple dog from Jim Butcher’s the Dresden Files. He checks all of the boxes and I would totally buy him as a plush. 

Character Study - Bantering

Dialogue is hard. You’d think it would the easiest part of writing, making people express themselves like  they do every time you talk.  But sometimes getting people to say what you want to move the story along is difficult to do naturally. One of the hardest parts of this is if you want multiple characters to talk back-and-forth in a way that the reader can see as quick to the point and sometimes funny. A lot of the time we call this banter which was very popular in movies of the 1930s and 40s. It was a good way to establish certain characters (especially independent and strong willed women in a time of strong social restrictions).

 But the idea of this kind of banter can go back even further and it exists in some books that are excellent examples"

Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing" includes Beatrice and Benedict,  a pair who both loath and love each other. Many of their quick witted conversations are some of the greatest jokes Shakespeare ever included in any of his plays. The speak back and forth seamlessly, which comes through so clearly in the writing many actors have explained how much fun they are to play. 

Of all the strange examples, Jane Eyre is full of excellent conversations, contemporary of their time. Jane and Rochester are not the pure angst they are usually portrayed as in the movie adaptations. The pair actually fall in love through speaking with one another. Jane is a character who makes her opinions known and Rochester's reactions to her blunt manner are give his character as more than dowdy and mysterious.

In modern writing, one of my favorite all-time writers of dialogue is Jim Butcher. The Dresden Files series is littered with interesting, paranormal characters in an urban setting. Many of the characters are contemporary and must speak in that way, however they also must talk about curses, monsters, and knights. Butcher weaves these topics into everyday speech with great skill and humor.

Lastly, this is no better teacher than your own ears. People watch. Listen. Write down conversations of complete strangers. Nothing will give you better ideas than that.