By Mary E. Lowd
I like animals, and so I write about them. Early on, I tried to keep the animals under control, off to the side, with plenty of human characters for readers to identify with at the center of my stories. Eventually, I discovered that there’s a whole genre of fiction for people like me who want to read and write about animals — it’s called furry fiction, and it changed my life. I stopped trying to shoehorn humans into my stories and fully embraced my desire to write animal characters.
There are a lot of advantages to writing furry fiction. In 2005, I started writing a NaNoWriMo novel about a down and out tabby cat and the dog goon who’s hired to get rid of her but turns out to have a heart of gold. It was inspired by watching my dog Patrick bark at my cat Heidi. It was supposed to be a quick and dirty novel to get the pump primed, and then once I had the animal characters out of my system, I’d move on to writing some serious science-fiction. Ten years later though, I’m still exploring the world of that novel because it turned out to be so rich. My fourth novel in that setting, Otters In Space 3: Octopus Uprising, should come out some time in the next year.
When you write about animal species, they’re fun and easy to picture, so a story is almost automatically colorful and compelling on a shallow level. This is why so many cartoons and animated films feature animal characters. Animals are fun to look at; animal characters are fun to think about. But more than that, each different animal species comes with its own quirks — some are predators, some are prey; some live in desserts, some are aquatic; they can have bushy fur, scales, feathers, or even skin that changes color. Antlers, wings, giant ears, long tails? So many options. And all these differences lead to different needs and different priorities. So, if you take your animal characters seriously, you can end up with a really rich world really fast. If you’ve seen the movie Zootopia, then you know what I mean.
But ShadowSpinners is a blog about dark fiction, so I want to steer this toward the intersection between dark fiction and furry fiction, because something really interesting happens when those two flavors combine.
Furry characters give the reader a feeling of safe distance — “That couldn’t happen to me; it’s happening to a cartoon character.” Wile E. Coyote can blow himself up, fall off cliffs, and be crushed by anvils all day every day, and it’s funny. George Orwell’s 1984 is terrifying, but Animal Farm is cute. The Netflix show BoJack Horseman delves deeply into the truth of depression. And Art Spiegelman’s Maus stares unflinchingly at the reality of Auschwitz. This is a powerful tool. But there’s a flip side, a double standard if you will.
People will cry over animals like they’ll never cry over other humans. I have a series of short stories about a tabby cat who constantly runs afoul of his owner’s household appliances — these are lightweight, fun, adventure romps with a supernatural twist. Yet, I’ve had these stories rejected (once by a YA market that lists The Hunger Games as the type of fiction they like) on the grounds that a cat killing a mouse is too dark.
Is there any way to twist the knife in a story more powerful than killing the dog? Sure, you can “kill the dog” without writing furry fiction. But furry fiction gives you a lot more dogs to kill.
If you want to write something truly, deeply dark, imagine combining both halves of that double standard.
I’ll let that idea sit for a moment.
It’s like the salty, nutty taste of peanut butter, undercut by the intense, bittersweet flavor of chocolate. Complex on the tongue and totally addictive. Lure the reader in with happy animal characters and make them feel safe — twitching noses, fluffy cottontails, and long ears. Then leave the poor bunny with its hind foot caught in a snare, twisted and bleeding to death on the floor — hitting the reader harder than they’ve ever been hit before.
The magical blend of furry fiction and dark fiction lends a unique opportunity to dark fiction writers. If you want to explore the possibilities for fitting furry characters into your own fiction, check out my essay “Writing Furry Speculative Fiction” on Jester Harley’s Manuscript Page where I break down all the standard tropes of furry world-building. For more information about furry fiction in general, check out the Furry Writers’ Guild website — among other things, the FWG keeps a listing of furry markets and hosts a forum and Slack group with a very active community of writers.
Furry fiction is an exciting and growing genre. We’d love to welcome more dark fiction writers into our ranks!
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Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than eighty short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.