Millionaire writer, Joe Eszterhas once wrote that audiences are no longer interested in character, pointing out that two of the biggest grossing films in the USA over the last few decades have starred a giant ape and a mechanical shark. He’s correct about the shark, that being only glimpsed, but surely the ape had personality? His statement raises other questions, too. Do animals have a character or merely characteristics? Do humans impose personality upon a creature or can the animal be perceived to have its own interior life? Can animals demonstrate a theory of mind? Could we suppose, like Herman Melville that a whale could have ‘the rare virtue of a strong, individual vitality?’ (68.7 Moby Dick)
There are many issues at play with human relationships with animals. This is what lies behind my books, The Ektek Trilogy. I have pondered upon the different aspects of what it is to be animal – not only for humans.
One aspect of animal character, epistemology, is fascinating. What do animal characters know and understand, and how do they come to know it, especially about the human world? Are things named at all in the animal kingdom? Certainly they are in fiction but then, fiction is written by the human animal.
…the other lifted a dark stick — a stick, Kian saw, that must not be a stick, for it uttered a boom of noise. The noise struck a raven and the bird somersaulted, its great wings spread wide. (pg 202 Forest by Sonya Hartnett)
How do some animal characters know the names for stick, trees, sheep, and yet not know the names for other things, like gun? How can their perceptions appear consistent in the world of their books? In the world I have created for Ektek, the animals use computers but they cannot understand the sounds of human speech.
Dogs can never speak the language of humans and humans can never speak the language of dogs. But many dogs appear to understand almost every word humans say, while humans seldom learn to recognise more than half a dozen barks, if that. And barks are only a small part of the dog language. A wagging tail can mean so many things. Humans know that it means a dog is pleased, but not what a dog is saying about his pleasedness. (Really, it is very clever of humans to understand a wagging tail at all, as they have no tails of their own.) Then there are the snufflings and sniffings, the pricking of ears—all meaning different things. And many, many words are expressed by a dog’s eyes. (Pg 52, 101 Dalmatians)
How can we know what an animal knows?
We’re animals. We know what we know!