Today as I was running an errand, pondering Lit. class, and our ongoing discussion of houses in stories we were reading, which tied into the obituary of a house I wrote earlier this week, I was startled by something my GPS did into thinking about anthropomorphism. Like that sentence, my brain often rambles off on odd thoughts with no seeming relevance from one point and the next. We humans apply human motives to pretty much everything around us.
My GPS, for instance, seems to have an adventurous spirit. It will take me one way going to a destination, and yet another when leaving, even if I am going back to my starting point. A friend tells the story of her family’s GPS being homicidal, trying to kill them by announcing that they must “turn right!” with increasing urgency, while they drove with a cliff directly to their right. I know someone else who programmed his GPS to speak with a very sultry voice. I don’t think I want to venture further into his anthropomorphic fantasies…
Earlier this summer I had an entirely different experience, almost the opposite, of going to a furry convention. Furries are people who have decided they would rather be an animal, whether life-like, or cartoony. While in full costume, most of them eschew human speech, making themselves heard with purrs, growls, and chirps, that I heard. But still, this falls into the category of anthropomorphism, for none of them, not even my friendly lion, would actually dream of rending another furry limb from limb and dining on them, while an animal wouldn’t even think twice about that.
“an·thro·po·mor·phism ( n thr -p -môr f z m). n. Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena.” The Free Dictionary
Most science fiction about aliens falls into this category. Aliens are just people who are odd-looking on the outside. It would be almost impossible to write a truly alien species, because we are all human, a product of our cultures. Even when attempting to write a true alien being, we fall into pits of strangeness we might not have known was there. I read a book (the title escapes me) about a lizard species who ate one another’s brains to gain knowledge. While a human can’t do that, per se, there was a tribe of people who ritually ate the brains of their direct ancestors upon death, believing that this kept their dead alive in spirit. It also transmitted a prion, a pathogen that caused a brain disease, and that is what brought the practice to light when modern researchers began to investigate.
There is very little that has not been done by humans. We’re endlessly curious, it seems, but in our attempts to make sense of the world around us, we anthropomorphize. Sometimes we take it a bit far (dogs in little costumes, anyone? Furbabies? Really?) and often it’s silly (my GPS with the adventurous spirit) but in writing, it is a way to further expand our knowledge of ourselves. Writing aliens is not about aliens, usually, it’s a way to bring onstage an enemy or protagonist and create a conflict.
I am not, nor do I ever want to be, a literary author. I don’t write to convey some deep, cosmic message. I certainly never want a Lit. class to do to my work what our class was doing to stories today. But it is unavoidable to know that within my writing are clues to my personal background and culture, even if I am not trying to write about that (as at least one of the stories from today was). Anthropomorphism is a tool in my writerly workbox to use, whether of concious houses, aliens, or talking pets, in driving the story along, revealing the human characters more clearly, and adding another level of complexity to a story. But not too much. Writing doesn’t need to be all but indecipherable. Sometimes a funny story about a dog is just that.