An Anthropomorphic House
Write about this topic “Beacons of Hope.” That was the challenge for this past month’s writing prompt. Given the kinds of stories that I like to tell, I knew I had to find some sort of speculative angle to this. I have never been one to take the easy road with stories. As Ginger and I were peeling paint from the front porch of our house, I was pondering this theme and trying to find inspiration. I got “that look” on my face where she knew the wheels were turning. A house that feels and thinks and responds. An anthropomorphic house.
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics, emotions, and behaviors to animals or other non-human things (including objects, plants, and supernatural beings). Some famous examples of anthropomorphism include Winnie the Pooh, the Little Engine that Could, and Simba from the movie The Lion King.Emily Frisella – Anthropomorphism Definition
The related concept of personification gives particular human traits to nonhuman or abstract things, or represents a quality or concept in human form. With personification, I can describe an object figuratively. The sun is smiling at us today. The wind whispered softly.
I wrote the story “She Waits” about a female character waiting for someone to come along and love her. To stay consistent with the writing prompt, I had the character not only reflect upon her own present state of affairs but also a couple of incidents from her past that brought her to where she was at: a house for sale that no one wanted to buy.
We can make anything humanlike
Animals are probably more anthropomorphized than just about anything else. This is a common approach in children’s books, such as Charlotte’s Web, Alice in Wonderland, many of Aesop’s Fables, and Dr. Seuss.
Stories like Beauty and the Beast, and the Toy Story series transform common household objects and toys into humanlike characters. Belle interacts with the anthropomorphic characters of Beauty and the Beast in story time. In Toy Story, the toys often revert to their inanimate state when certain humans are around.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we have the Ents.
For “She Waits” I wanted to have a house as not only my main character but also my viewpoint character. The story is about the house and I want the readers to experience the story through the eyes and thoughts of the house. Unlike many anthropomorphic characters, the house does not move. It was important for me to keep this character physically stationary while also trying to convey a very limited sense of movement.
How much anthropomorphic characters act like humans can also vary
Not all anthropomorphic characters are created equal. The characters in Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, Cars, and many Disney movies freely move about their spaces and can do most things that humans can do. They often even dance and sing.
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm and E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, the animal characters move through their world as animals would. In all other ways, the animals behave like humans.
In Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, the tree only moves in ways that are appropriate, yet it still conveys care and concern for a boy.
Because the house in “She Waits” is also the viewpoint character, I could easily convey her thoughts and feelings. I could also have her experience physical pain when a vagabond lights a fire in her fireplace without properly cleaning the flue and when two boys break one of her windows. I hinted she can respond to touch when a young couple is walking through her and considering buying her. Although I don’t do it in this version, I would explore what that response looks like if I decide to develop the story into a longer piece.
Human and anthropomorphic characters co-exist
As with most stories involving anthropomorphic characters, “She Waits” has the house interacting with the human characters who come into contact with her. I showed some of that interaction using flashbacks as the house remembers how she came to be where she is at and how she had been treated. None of the human characters know the house is sentient and aware of their presence. This is fairly uncommon, since stories are about characters in conflict.
In most stories, the interaction between human and humanlike characters is more apparent. Each of the characters knows the others are present and are different. There is usually no pretense that the humanlike characters are anything other than what they appear to be.
Occasionally, all the characters in a story are anthropomorphic. In these stories, the characters are human people in the story world.
Why use anthropomorphism?
There are many reasons for writers using anthropomorphism in their stories:
- These characters can be much more vivid and imaginative that readers can identify with. Beauty and the Beast can be told without the humanlike furniture, but would be less engaging.
- We can see that certain human characteristics are universal-shared by all creatures.
- Anthropomorphic characters allow writers to tell different stories than would be possible with humans, even if the emotions and struggles of the characters are universal.
- Anthropomorphism can bring a symbolic dimension to the story. This is especially true in allegory.
I’ve already mentioned the article “Anthropomorphism” by Emily Frisella in the quote above. I also recommend “Anthropomorphism Examples in Well-Known Characters” and “Personification vs. Anthropomorphism” for further reading.