Growing up, I had a distinct preference in books and movies for human characters. I did enjoy stories about non-human characters. I loved the farmyard gang of the Freddy the Pig series, the classic Winnie the Pooh, the rascals of Uncle Remus and the relatable Garfield. You will notice a few commonalities – these are animals (or stuffed animals in the second instance) and they exist in a world with humans. But generally speaking, I prefer human characters. Especially in comparison to anthropomorphic inanimate objects. I never knew why, but lately, I’ve been doing some thinking on the question – why do I prefer actual human characters over anthropomorphic ones? I believe my preference boils down to an understanding of what it means to be human.
It is generally understood that the most important aspect of a character in any story is their relatability. This does not require similar life circumstances, it merely requires the character to have motives, qualities, and struggles which the reader or the watcher can understand. I’ve never had to travel with a group of dwarves to their ancient mountain home to recover treasure and haggle with a dragon. But I understand Bilbo’s conflicted desires of adventure and home, the earning of respect and the development of confidence. Is this all there is to relatability, however? Is it simply a matter of relating to feelings? I recall reading an observation (in the form of a screen captured forum thread) to the effect that Pixar’s basic modus operandi is to create a story where something has feelings – toys, cars, bugs and of course even feelings themselves. I admire the creativity I suppose but I’m a little tired of humanity being boiled down to a matter of simple feelings. I relate to Mr. Baggins on another level, a level I do not relate to with Lightning McQueen or Woody or even, honestly, Winnie the Pooh. Bilbo might be a “Hobbit” but biologically he is a human, just a little smaller than normal.
To be human is about more than feelings. My human existence involves a very physical dimension. I have two hands, ten fingers, two opposable thumbs, two feet, I walk on two legs in an upright position, I eat food that digests in my system and comes out again; I breathe, I have lungs and a complex arrangement of internal organs that protest if I injure them or eat the wrong food, I have blood flowing through my veins and a heart that quickens its pace when I run or get excited; I can ache but also enjoy delights of a chilly breeze on a fall morning or the smell of sawdust. I can relate to actual human characters on a very fundamental level because I can imagine myself walking in Bilbo’s non-existent shoes and feel as he felt. If Tolkien’s Hobbit were an oak leaf or a potato, I would lose that level of connectedness.
Are these all exclusive to humans? Some are, some are shared with animals. But therein lies the fundamental flaw of anthropomorphic characters for me – they cannot be fully human. Animals come closer to emulating humanness than inanimate objects but only because they have the advantage of sharing basic physical experiences such as touch and smell. And yet, even with animals, the further a character is from the mammalian species, you lose more and more physical commonality. As a side note, I realize not all people share in some of the experiences I just listed. There are those unable to see, walk, talk, hear or those without limbs. But that does not negate the fundamental humanness of these abilities and experiences. After all, not all humans have the emotional capabilities either. But even those humans with “disabilities” share in the physicality of humanity. The issue is not about what do all humans do but about those experiences generally related to being human.
Am I saying that anthropomorphic characters are bad? No, they have their place. But I am leery of how heavily populated children’s media is with these wannabe humans. I am worried because of the message entire generations have internalized about what it means to human, a diluted half-truth that takes from them the full drama of humanness in all its ugliness and beauty. As a Christian, I believe that man is made in the image of God. I also believe that God the Son became perfect man, and lived a human life. Jesus experienced human life in its full physical and emotional state – he was truly man as the old creeds say. If humanity is something God himself made and did not disdain to share in, I think we should take care to preserve a full understanding of our humanity. Especially in the arts.