Saturday, 21 March 2015

Drawing the anthropomorphic line: How human should your characters be? • Jonathan Emmett


Drawing the anthropomorphic line 

The “Pig Tales” session I often do on my school and library visits features three picture books I’ve written about pigs. In between reading the three stories I explain that one of the things that makes them different from each other is how much anthropomorphism they use. I explain what this ridiculously long word means and why it’s such a useful tool for storytellers.


The dictionary definition of anthropomorphism is “the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object.” I tell the children that anthropomorphism is simply “making something more like a person.”

Many of mankind’s oldest stories come from Africa, the birthplace of the human race. In the African stories of Anansi the spider, Anansi thinks and speaks like a human and in some of the stories he takes on human form.

Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott

Storytellers have been using anthropomorphism – making animals think, talk and look like humans – ever since.

Lucy Cousins's Maisy Mouse

And it’s not just animals – you can anthropomorphise almost anything … 


… vegetables …


… vehicles …


… even household appliances!

One reason storytellers use anthropomorphism is because people usually find characters more appealing if they think they are like them. Anthropomorphising an animal or even a toaster makes us care about what happens to them.

Anthropomorphism is not an either-or option; you can vary the amount you use. And, if you are creating a picture book, it’s worth taking the time to get the balance just right in both text and illustrations.

You can use varying amounts of anthropomorphism

My picture book story Pigs Might Fly is a sequel to the traditional tale of The Three Little Pigs. The pigs in my story build and fly aeroplanes, so they are fully anthropomorphic – the story could just as well be about three humans. This was reflected in some of illustrator Steve Cox’s first character sketches for the book, where the pigs are fully clothed and one of them is carrying a phone and a laptop. However, the publisher felt that these characters didn’t have quite the right appeal, and the character designs that eventually appeared in the book wore less clothing and were more recognisably pig-like.

Some of Steve Cox's character sketches for Pigs Might Fly:
Early, fully-anthropomorphic characters on the left and final characters on the right.

The pig in The Pig’s Knickers lives outdoors on a farm and – before the events of the story – would not usually wear clothing. However I made him talk, think and feel like a human in the text and Vanessa Cabban’s illustrations show him dancing on his hind legs and picking things up with his front trotters. As such, he’s a good example of a semi-anthropomorphic character.

One of Vanessa Cabban's illustrations for The Pig's Knickers

The Princess and the Pig is the story of a piglet that gets switched at birth and is brought up as a princess in the mistaken belief that she has been bewitched. The running joke in the story is that, while the reader knows that Princess Priscilla is nothing more than an ordinary pig, the characters in the story don’t and spend all their time trying to make her look and behave like a human. When I first started thinking about the story I considered making Priscilla a little anthropomorphic, but in the end I decided that the story would be much funnier if I didn’t anthropomorphise her at all.

One of Poly Bernatene's spreads for The Princess and the Pig

So the next time you’re writing a story with animal* characters, take a moment to think about where’s the best place to draw your anthropomorphic line!


*Or vegetables or vehicles or household appliances!



Jonathan Emmett's latest semi-anthropomorphic picture book is A Spot of Bother illustrated by Vanessa Cabban and published by Walker Books.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on facebook and twitter @scribblestreet.


12 comments:

  1. Interesting to see Steve Cox's different treatment of pigs. The fully clothed ones looked a bit dated, a bit cartoony ('mass-market' as some say). The part-clothed ones looked much fresher and livelier.

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    1. I know what you mean about "dated". Wilbur, the pig on the right is holding a mobile phone. It was meant to show how tech-savy he is, but it now looks quite low-tech in comparison to a modern smartphone. I think it was a good call to go with the simpler, more pig-like characters.

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  2. The anthropomorphometer made me smile. I often have a line in my head as I write, but it's usually decided by the editor and illustrator.

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    1. I've written quite a few animal picture books and the illustrator often judges the line differently from where I'd imagined it to be. Often it makes for a better illustration, but occasionally it feels at odds with the story and I've asked the illustrator to move it back.

      One of the Mole books I did with Vanessa Cabban was about Mole digging a tunnel to a friend and Vanessa originally drew Mole using a spade. This didn't work for me as Mole's ability to dig was identified as something that made him special in the story, so showing him using tool (which another animal might also use) rather than his paws made this ability seem less particular to him. When we discussed it with Vanessa, she agreed and was happy to make the change.

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  3. I had a pig story where the illustrator drew him as a gangster. We got a new illustrator.

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    1. Shame! ;-) not good for potential parental purchases though I guess.

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  4. I too adore your anthropomorphometer, Jonathan! Unfortunately, I always stumble over the pronunciation of the word 'anthropomorphism' and therefore avoid the term when I visit schools, even though we create animal characters. But perhaps I should try harder!

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    1. It is an awkward word, but when I do the session in schools we try to have fun with it. Before I actually say the word myself, I invite a child up to the front to try to read it off the screen – someone ALWAYS wants to have a go. I ask them to repeat some other ridiculously long words to 'limber up' and check that they are qualified for the role and then they try to pronounce it. Some as young as 6 have got it right first time, but most need a little help.

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    2. Sounds fun. I'll have to get you to train me to pronounce it!

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  5. This was really interesting - thanks! I like the anthropomorphometer -- even if it does make a long word even longer (yes, I did have to go back and individually check each letter...)

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  6. Thanks Becca. I 'm glad you enjoyed the post. :)

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  7. Your anthropomorphometer is an unqualified success! Interesting reading. I remember an event with Julia Donaldson where she talked about the initial sketches for the mouse in The Gruffalo. Axel Scheffler had read 'the mouse looked good' as him looking dapper -and the sketches were of a mouse in lederhosen and other clothes!

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