Certain types of stories use animal characters instead of people. This is the main type of anthropomorphism, which means giving human qualities to something that isn’t human, whether another kind of animal or an object. This is done a lot in fantasy stories, to get the audience thinking about ideas that would be harder for them to see in a more realistic world.
Usually, though, you see it in stories for kids, with animals or objects used to teach a lesson about people. Sometimes the writers hope that this will get kids’ attention and give the story a fun twist. This online course about writing for children will give you additional story tips.
Anthropomorphic characters can be used in stories in a few different ways, sometimes along with humans and sometimes not. If you’re working on your own art or stories and wondering whether or not to use anthropomorphic characters, looking at some of the ways they’ve been used before can help you to figure out the best way to put together your own story.
The Natural World
Long before cartoons or modern literature, people used their understanding of each other to try and understand the world around them. They would talk about oceans, mountains, or the weather as having human emotions and human motivations. In the ancient world, this was sometimes a way for people to understand the way the natural world works instead of the more prosaic—and less voluntary—scientific explanations that we use today. In Greco-Roman mythology, as this online course on Greek culture shows, the gods could affect the natural world almost as if it were alive, in a similar way.
Often, anthropomorphizing nature meant talking about the relationship people have to the natural world, and especially the control people might have over what could sometimes be described as nature spirits. It helped some people feel more connected to nature, especially certain animals, by teaching that animals weren’t so different from humans. Today, as we study animal behavior, geology, and meteorology, we’re still looking for how to predict or prevent natural disasters.
Animals Talking to Humans
Since people have been thinking of animals as having minds like those of humans for a long time, sometimes it’s made sense to have animals able to talk to people as well. Of course, in fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood or in folktales where trickster animals interact with people, this tends not to be a good sign for the people involved, who tend not to be savvy enough to protect themselves. Talking animals show up in older folktales, sometimes as a supernatural element. Other times these kinds of stories use animals as metaphors for types of people, in which case they really are warnings.
In other cases, the people are both main characters and the heroes of the stories, and the animals are their friends. Disney movies use this often, such as in The Little Mermaid. It can be a way for characters like Ariel to talk about what they’re thinking in a way they might not with their human friends. Of course, in this example Ariel isn’t quite human either, but in Beauty and the Beast, Belle and her father own a horse that clearly has his own opinions on what’s going on even if he doesn’t talk. Looking at different cartoons will show you lots of ways that animals can be more thoughtful companions to humans in a story than real animals are.
Objects, not Animals
The Disney version of Beauty and the Beast is also a good example of the use of anthropomorphized objects rather than just animals. They generally interact with the people around them, like Belle, the same way as people would, although some of the dishes, furniture and other “minor characters” that get used as just background extras seem to be less humanized. In Toy Story, there’s also a variable level of humanization in the objects shown. This tends to depend on the qualities of the original toy.
The toys in Toy Story purposefully avoid interacting with humans, unlike most of the examples we’ve seen so far. In fact, unlike animals, a lot of stories about anthropomorphized objects tend to be more about what happens when people aren’t around.
While some older fairy tales show animals and people together, there are also stories that show full worlds of anthropomorphized animals, like Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, or fables like the story of tortoise and the hare. In these cases, the society being depicted is usually a metaphor for human society, with the types of animals or objects used being symbolic of personality types. These are often used as lessons for children—typically, to avoid being like a certain type. If you’re designing a cartoon with non-human characters, this online course can help you animate them.
Other Interaction with People
Occasionally, like with Toy Story, anthropomorphized characters live in the same world with people but don’t have much connection with them. The best example of this, of course, is Bambi, where the woodland animals think and communicate like people but live in a forest in proximity to humans. As many dismayed children can tell you, those humans intrude on the environment when a hunter kills Bambi’s mother. Like with fables using animal characters, the intention is to teach a lesson, in this case about interacting with real-life animals.
Along with cartoons, movies, and literature, just pictures of animals sometimes show them as more humanlike than they really are. This is especially true with more predatory animals like bears, in order to make them cuter and less threatening, and to help people relate to them even when they’re not developed characters. You can read here about developing and drawing characters, human or not, for cartoons or animation once you’ve decided what kinds of people and animals your story needs, and this online course can teach you even more when you’re ready to get started.