This is meant to apply as broadly as possible—to normal animals, telcoms (telepathic companions), shapeshifters, and author-created fantasy animals. Some of it does assume that you’re writing from the animal’s point-of-view, but it could also be useful for describing them from the outside.
1) Watch how they move.
Supposedly, people base a large part of their evaluation of animals on this characteristic. It’s one reason that we admire horses so much, even though evidence persists that horses are pretty dumb compared to, say, pigs. It could also be a reason that so many people feel revulsion around spiders, snakes, beetles, rats, and bats.
This is an especially important feature if you’re making up a species of animal. How does it move? It might be damn impressive if it can run a hundred miles an hour, but how would its body have to look for it to do that? (Hint: a huge pair of feathery wings dragging behind it is not the best idea).
Likewise, imagine that your character’s suddenly caught in the middle of a swarm of small dragons. How are they moving around her? How quickly can they turn in midair? Do they fly like bats, crows, hummingbirds, bumblebees, dragonflies? Can they stop? Can they turn corners swiftly? Can they lash out with a claw as they go past and hook her in the face, in which case she should protect her eyes? Can they cooperate, lift her a hundred feet in the air, and drop her to break like an egg? It’s kind of important to know this, I should think. (Again, this is something the author should know even if the character doesn’t).
Perhaps your character is riding a horse madly away from a mountain lion. Now, it’s true that cougars cannot run anywhere near as fast as a cheetah, and they’re not as heavy as true lions. But, on the other hand, they’re among the best jumpers in the feline family, and can often jump at least twenty feet horizontally. If the horse is not far ahead of the pursuer in this case, perhaps just starting the dash away from camp, your character stands an excellent chance of having an enraged cat crashing into her horse’s hind legs, and perhaps jumping straight onto her shoulders. Cougars also like to hang around on high ledges, and drop off onto prey passing beneath them—and they can kill horses. Likewise, if snow falls and freezes into a glaze on the top, horses and deer will find it incredibly difficult to move, since their hooves break through the crust, while a cougar’s paws can glide along on top of it. That’s something you don’t want stalking after you through a forest on a winter evening.
If you’re designing a riding animal, know how it bears the weight and still moves. Some descriptions of dragonflight don’t sound comfortable or possible because the dragon would practically have to be carrying the rider on its wings, especially when it has a row of spikes down the center of its back. Also, most of the time an extra rider will be a drag on the animal’s speed and stamina, which is why people don’t just ride double or triple on horses all the time. Take this into account if you’re writing normal travel, let alone a chase or other desperate circumstances.
The motions of trained animals are something else again. Border collies are trained to herd sheep with, among other things, stalking motions that make them look like wolves and evoke fear in the sheep. An untrained dog would be likely to just dash at and scatter them. A trained warhorse might try to rear and buck an unfamiliar rider off; an ordinary one will probably accept one rider who knows the tack as well as another. Captive dolphins can swim in complex patterns that will not occur except by chance in wild pods.
So know what the animal you’re writing is capable of and what it’s not. And remember that training is much easier when it incorporates the animal’s natural motions than when it goes completely against them.
2) Know the sounds and the communicative gestures it makes.
This is true even when you’re writing animals who are telepathic. There’s no reason that every animal sound has to be “translated” into a human “equivalent,” like a smile or a laugh or tears or a roll of the eyes. What the fuck? Many animals have a range of vocalizations and movements that will serve quite well. (The only ones that seem to be widely known are the snarls, whines, howls, whimpers, and so on of wolves, perhaps because wolves are among the most frequently-used bond animals and the most frequently used shapeshifting beasts).
To return to cougars: They can’t roar. They can scream, a noise that is usually reported to sound like a woman’s voice in fear or pain and to scare the shit out of most humans hearing it without preparation. They can also keep completely silent, because of those padded paws. So, you know, just because you can’t hear them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Animals can also use the vocalizations of other animals to serve them. Hence, if a jay cries out because a human’s moving through the forest, it’s not just the jay that’s warned, and not just the jay that’s going to be difficult to catch for supper. There are also some large groups of several kinds of monkeys that travel together in the jungles of South America, and when one particular species cries out on seeing a jaguar, the others take notice and use evasive tactics.
Learn how animals sound, even if they’re background species. At least it will make a difference if you’re able to make your wood-savvy hunter pick out different birds by voice, instead of just operating against an undifferentiated background of “birdsong.”
3) Keep an animal’s senses in mind.
Perhaps the human character has hidden himself very carefully from the antelope he’s stalking, and also arranged himself so that his scent isn’t blowing to it. Yet the antelope still has ears. He’s not moving silently enough. Off it goes—and since many species of antelope run extremely fast and bound or leap or zigzag at the same time, good luck to him in hitting one even with a bow or a gun. (This is why a waterhole or river is a good place to hunt such skittish animals, because the sound of the water tends to muffle a hunter’s movements—but, of course, the antelope are especially skittish when venturing in to such places).
Wolves and other canines are not the only species that have keen senses of smell, either. Nearly all the mammals have noses smarter than a human’s. And even if a hunter is careful, the wind can switch, or a member of the local group can come back along the trail where the human footsteps and scent are prominently displayed and raise the warning.
Know how other animals see. Many birds will turn their heads to the side when looking at someone directly in front of them, so as to see with one eye—a fact that should have implications for people who transform into birds. Humans have an excellent central line of vision; other animals are better at seeing the periphery, which is another reason hunters who think they’re concealed from their prey can still be seen. Cats can see better in dimness because their eyes gather more light, but that doesn’t mean they’re seeing exactly the same thing that humans would in the daytime.
Finally, be prepared to realize that some animals just don’t have the standard complement of five human senses. Snakes don’t hear the same way; they feel vibrations. Some species of viper also have pits in the front of their heads that let them sense the heat of warm-blooded prey. Sharks can sense vibrations, too, and know from certain frenzied patterns of movement when a wounded fish or mammal is thrashing about. Cats apparently don’t have a taste for sweets. There’s no reason that a telepathic animal or a human transforming into an animal should perceive the world exactly as a human does.
4) Realize that food is a very high priority for most animal species.
I pity most telcoms, as it seems unlikely they ever get enough to eat. All that hither-and-yon dashing for their human friends leaves them next to no time to hunt (and when they’re shown hunting, the narrative often makes simply wrong assumptions about their speed; see point 5) or graze or scavenge. Even a falcon that flies over 200 miles per hour in a dive is going to need the food to power that dive. It’s not just a matter of doing and doing and doing, and many animals don’t have the human option of carrying food with them.
Definitely know what your species eats, and if you have a species that has special needs traveling with your human characters, it’s up to your human characters to provide for them. Is that half-tame coyote actually going to be satisfied with the bones and scraps tossed him from the table? Unlikely. Coyotes are among the most adaptable of the predator/scavenger species—the United States government has devoted an awful lot of time and trouble to killing them, and yet they keep stubbornly hanging on—and they’re clever at figuring out the way into, say, a guarded henhouse or a garden where a small dog is yapping its head off at them. There goes what might amount to an arrest or a diplomatic incident, and all because the character couldn’t be bothered enough to think about feeding his pet.
This is especially prominent with telcoms, I think, because the preference among writers of telepathic companions is for the big ones, the major predators and herbivores, so they can carry the character. (I think it would be funny to see someone riding on an ostrich, but I also don’t think they’re glamorous enough for most authors). Problem? The food problem. A horse can and will eat its head off. Even the smaller antelopes, zebras, ponies, and donkeys need fodder, and their need increases when they’re hauling people about. As for wolves, they can eat smaller prey, like mice, and often do, but then they have to find a lot of them. They can also go for a few days without making a major kill, but that’s because they’ll swallow up to twenty pounds of meat at a time. And don’t even get me started on dragons, and why they somehow inexplicably never oblige their embarrassed human owners to go pay for those sheep and cattle they just devoured. (That was, at least, one thing Anne McCaffrey got right about Pern: the landowners were understandably hesitant about sacrificing a lot of their animals to feed these monstrous reptiles that were, at that point in their planet’s history, doing nothing in particular).
Animals resemble love, in this sense. (I liked typing that sentence). The cool aspects are played up, just as the supposedly deep and meaningful word love is used between characters who have only known each other for two days, and all the nasty, inconvenient problems—is it really meaningful if it happens so fast? Is it really a cool pet if you have to take care of it?—get left behind.
5) Nature is not perfect.
This point includes several vague but connected points that I couldn’t think how to phrase on their own.
This applies most to hunting. Predators miss most of their kills, especially when hunting large herbivore species. So the hunting animal in a fantasy novel who can go out and “feed himself” won’t be back in five minutes every single time, any more than a human hunter can go out and be assured of coming back with game within the hour. This can cause problems if your character’s on a strict travel schedule, and the more times the character calls off the hunt and orders the hunting pet or telcom back to her side hungry, the more and more snappish the pet or telcom should get. Ideally, the sixth or seventh time she does that and then reaches out to pet the critter, she’ll lose a few fingers. Keeping hungry animals around is dangerous.
Likewise, no, your horses can’t just live on grass forever. What happens if the characters are moving through a scrubland or semi-desert where there’s simply nothing for them to eat? And if they’ve been raised on a variety of fodder including oats and mash, they’ll get sick if forced to subsist on whatever they can snatch.
This is not even saying anything about water, of course.
Keep this in mind if you’re designing a fantasy species, too. You can’t just invent one that will be perfectly suited to every environment. If you could, they would already have multiplied out of control and destroyed many neighboring species, because there would be nothing to keep them out of other niches. The adaptations that make it so admirable for some things should work against it in trying to accomplish others, particularly if the species is captive-bred. Yes, your character may have a pet bird with a beautiful fanned tail twice its length. But that doesn’t mean a whole flock of them would do well in a jungle where their pretty feathers would show them off against the leaves, and where their tails would catch in branches and hinder them in flight and make perfect targets for carnivores coming up behind them.
Likewise, remember that it’s not just predators that keep species from spreading. It’s also the presence of other species that are better-suited to other ecological niches than they are, weather, disease, geographical barriers, and the consequences of overpopulation. If the same species of horse lives on two different sides of an ocean, how did they get there? (Horses died out in North America; the ones that came with the Spanish conquistadors were the first ones to walk the New World’s shores in centuries). Humans can, of course, have spread them (see point 6), but then you’ll have to have that explanation to hand. Traveling vast distances should, believe it or not, change the fauna.
6) Animals can adapt to humans—and not always in ways that humans want them to.
For example, the European colonizers usually meant to bring domestic animals like horses with them. They did not mean to bring all sorts of other animals, like insects and rats, but that’s what happened. Any attempt to exterminate them from shipping failed. Even today, humans generally can’t keep rodents from entering homes if they want to, and having a completely insect-free building is impossible.
Animals also take advantage of human structures. Some falcons nest on the ledges of skyscrapers, for example. Turkey vultures circle over highways. Foxes come up on the porches in rural neighborhoods to eat the cat food, and raccoons get into garbage cans. Crows and jays are bold enough in many areas to steal food from campers and hikers. Pigeons are a menace and a nuisance in New York City. Feeders attract plenty of birds that the people who put them up want to see, but they also attract squirrels, and sometimes hawks take the opportunity to use a lot of little birds in one area as a free buffet.
Concentrated efforts to exterminate them can work; other times, they don’t. I’ve already mentioned how coyotes have hung on. Cougars are moving back into cities in the American West, and black bears back into the Eastern States. They’ve lost their fear of humans through the very living in the midst of their habitats which we assumed would kill them, and so they’ve started making cities and rural communities part of their ranges, leading to danger for pretty much all involved.
Consider this when writing about your characters in a fantasy world, who most of the time will be living a much more rural existence than your average Western twenty-first-century person. Species that don’t directly benefit humans don’t receive much notice in fantasy, other than rats in dungeons, but they’re there, and they can add funny moments, diversions, plot points, and local color to writing that may otherwise be thin and anemic, relying too much on clichés or an antiseptic human worldview.