Animal Inaccuracies

A couple weeks ago I talked about avoiding terms in your writing that wouldn’t be applicable in your chosen time frame.  Today I want to talk about avoiding animals that wouldn’t be found in your chosen location.

I know that the average person isn’t going to think about where an animal is from, and the presence of an incongruent creature isn’t going to ruin a story for them.  There are a lot of people with some animal smarts, however, especially young adults who may be addicted to wildlife television.  As a person who knows something about critters, it can be very distracting to see an animal in the wrong place.

Want an example?  Fantastic!  I have some recognizable ones from movies.

Common to us in the USA, a raccoon should only show up if your story is set in the Americas.

I recently watched three of the Disney classics from the early 90s: Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.  Every one of them had at least one animal incorrect.  In B&B, Gaston has a raccoon hanging out of his hunting bag in a very early scene.  Every raccoon relative is native to the New World only, and wouldn’t be found in France.  (The red panda, often considered a relative, is currently classified in its own order and not in Procyonidae, so I didn’t count it.  Besides, it’s restricted to China – still not found in France.)  The Lion King, which took great pains to be incredibly detailed and accurate with all of the wildlife, has giant anteaters in “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”  Once again, anteaters and their relatives are New World, and not found in Africa.

Aladdin is probably the worst, although I am willing to cut them a little slack.  It’s supposed to be set in the Middle East, but there are a lot of Indian influences (and animals) throughout the movie.  Tigers, Asian elephants, and peacocks are only found in Asia, but as the Middle East was a center for world trade, I think we can overlook these as possible to the scene.  My two main issues with the movie are both camelid.  First, they can’t seem to decide if they want dromedary (one-humped) or Bactrian (two-humped) camels in the movie; dromedary would be the correct choice.  Second, and bigger, is the “llamas galore” in the song “Prince Ali.”  Llamas are (once again) New World only, and unlike Asia that part of the world was not accessible to traders in the Middle East.

I can’t fault Disney too much; many of their later movies are very accurate with their species choices.  I’ve also had this difficulty.  In a scene in Butterflies, four characters are dressing up as woodland creatures for a masquerade ball.  I had them originally as a butterfly, a lizard, a wildcat and a raccoon.  After an interesting discussion with one of my First Readers, who pointed out that the others could be found almost anywhere while a raccoon is North American, I changed the fourth costume to a squirrel.  That change made the animals all generic enough that they weren’t setting a specific geographic location.  As the story is set in a world of my own creation, not specifying a real-world place with my animals is a good idea.

If you’re using animals in your stories, keep in mind where they are from.  Use generic animals (eagle) rather than specific species (Bald Eagle) when possible, and if you want to use something specific, there are many animals with wide ranges that won’t restrict you to a certain place.  The biggest message here is to do your research!  Putting in the right animals builds your scene, while the wrong ones can throw a reader out of the story.

Veering from the Original

I love the recent Disney movie Tangled.  The plot is fun, the romance is well done, and it has the best Disney horse ever!  However, it doesn’t really stick to the original story of Rapunzel.  There’s no craving for vegetables and theft from the neighboring witch, there’s no loss of eyesight, and the main guy is far from a prince.

Granted, most movies made using fairy tales have a lot of variation.  Even some of my favorite novels are new twists on fairy tales.  (Beauty  by Robin McKinley is fabulous, and I really like Mercedes Lackey’s approach in her Five Hundred Kingdoms series.)  I guess that’s the reality of fairy tales.  They were handed down orally before they were ever recorded, and generations of tellings have created a whole slew of changes, tweaks, and unique interpretations.

Movies based directly on novels irritate me because they make changes, but for some reason movies that are derived from fairy tales are somehow not just acceptable, they’re fun!

Missing Your Target Audience

Today I watched one of my favorite Disney movies, The Emperor’s New Groove.  It is an awesome movie that most of my friends agree is highly entertaining.  Of course, it includes llamas (one of my favorite animals) so I love it. 

The movie, for all its wonderfulness, has never been very popular.  The problem is that it misses its target audience.  I know a few kids who have enjoyed it (the offspring of one of my friends quote it all the time) but most kids haven’t seen it or don’t enjoy it as much as adults.

It doesn’t have a princess (or even a love interest) and, while adults find it quite humorous, most of the jokes are lost on the younger crowd.  As one of the peripheral goals of Disney animation is the sale of all the accompanying stuff, missing the age bracket that inspires toy and clothing purchases pretty much doomed it to being one of those “hidden secret” Disney movies.   

As an author it is important to remember my target audience.  I know full well that my book (and accompanying stories) are female-driven.  While I won’t discourage my male friends from reading it (although none have to date) I am prepared for them to not enjoy the story as much as my female friends.  I would never presume to force my book on someone who wouldn’t enjoy it.  Of course, with little to no magic, it may also be lost on a lot of fantasy fans.  I don’t mind that, though, since it seems that it has found favor with non-fantasy readers. 

Perhaps I’m targeting the wrong group of agents, in that case.  Maybe I should be looking at general fiction agents, although convincing them to take a chance on something that looks like fantasy might be tricky.

To use the term ‘princess’ loosely…

I began pondering animated movies on my drive home today.  (I have had several discussions recently, with different people, about the genre.)  Through a variety of steps, my brain landed on the topic of the Disney Princesses.  Disney has had it’s fair share of male protagonists – most of their animal movies have male main characters – but it is the princesses that get the most attention.

Those of you who are familiar with my writing and/or this blog know that I lean toward strong, female protagonists.  I’ve written a few fluffy, silly girls into my books as needed, but most appear when useful before drifting away, not keeping my (or my plot’s) attention.  When considering the female leads in many animated movies, I realized that they are also all strong females in some sense.

According to the Disney Princess website, there are 9 female characters that are considered the “princesses.”  They use the term somewhat loosely; only four start their movies as princesses, and two of them never truly become princesses at all.  (The two who aren’t princesses at any point are Mulan and Pocahontas.  I will argue Pocahontas with you if you want – the daughter of a Native American chief is not really a princess, and I will stand by that.)  I’m also sure that, with Tangled released this summer, Rapunzel will probably round the group out to a nice even ten.

Some of these ladies are stronger individuals than others.  Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), while my sister’s favorite princess, is a fairly wilting flower when you get down to it.  Snow White, too, relies heavily on others to help her through life.  Poor Jasmine, while definitely a strong woman, isn’t even the main character of her movie!  (Let’s face it, she’s the female equivalent to Aurora’s prince.  She’s a major player in the story line, but if your name isn’t in the title of the movie, the movie isn’t about you.) 

Mulan, Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), and Belle (Beauty and the Beast) are the three that stand out to me as the strongest of the Disney ladies.  They are strong, smart, and fight for what they believe.  Pocahontas and Ariel (The Little Mermaid) are both insistent on their individuality, and stand up for themselves, but there are a few moments in their movies when they lapse back into helpless girls.  Granted, real ladies out there probably do the same thing at times, so it’s not fair to expect every female to carry her own every moment. 

To be honest, I never really identified with the princesses available to me growing up, and many of the books I read were lacking in females I could relate to.  My favorite Disney character as a kid, the one who seemed most like me, was Mowgli from The Jungle Book.   I have always been an animal child.  🙂  Now, if forced to choose a “princess,” I’d have to go with Mulan, the only one without even a hint of princess about her. 

From that, and my opinions above, it should be clear why my protagonists are females who are strong and independent, and even the princesses in my stories have another, more important role.