Character versus Self

When I first got into furry, I was probably fourteen or fifteen.  I know that it was the fall semester of my freshman year of high school, and that I started getting into it in my downtime in my first computer class at school (well, during class, too), as well as at home.  I wound up finding Yerf and FluffMUCK back in their prime, and played around with IRC on YiffNet, as well.  I found the whole thing from a website I was on called Puberty101 – which now sounds like a pedophile’s paradise; the name was later changed to GovTeen – a forum site for (supposed) kids to ask questions of other (supposed) kids about things like sex and sexuality, emotions, and all that jazz.  Just so happened that I stumbled over a few posts regarding this thing called furry, one of which had this abstruse collection of letters, numbers and punctuation at the end, which was described as a ‘fur code’.

I had already been all about the good old furry favorites like Disney’s Robin Hood, The Rescuers, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the Redwall books, and so on.  Finding the fur code and what it meant at that time in my life led to a perfect, terrible storm of destruction for any hopes of normalcy I had planned for my life.  I latched right onto it and, after spending three dumb days as a dragon, settled on a red fox with two tails as my character and dubbed myself Ranna.  This was the subtle point that would take me the better part of ten years to disentangle: character creation.

I sometimes wonder if people involved in LARP communities, those in the SCA, or even pencil and paper RPG players get quite as involved in their characters as furries do.  I honestly don’t know, as most of my knowledge is gained from an outside, media-tainted perspective, but I suspect that it might be a little different for furries for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost is that our characters are intended to be a representation of ourselves.  The thing that drew me in about FurCodes was the ‘T’ segment: If you had the chance, would you want to become a real furry.  This wasn’t just something fun we did or some historical accuracy we strive for – people actually really, truly desired to become their characters.  I’m sure there are folk in the SCA or in LARP groups that really do desire to be in the role they’re playing, but that leads us to the second point.

Furries don’t necessarily role play outside themselves.  Someone who gets so into renaissance festivals that they wind up working there and living the characters on weekends is casting themselves into a totally different time, where the modern conveniences of life are gone and everything is fundamentally different.  Furries – and, though I’m speaking from experience here, I know it doesn’t apply to everyone – are perfectly content to act out their day to day, mundane, boring-ass lives as anthropomorphic canines (statistically speaking).  As I was growing up through high school, I hung out with a crowd made up of furry gamers, programmers, and computer nerds; not just the players, but the characters as well.  As I grew and moved to college, I decamped from FluffMUCK and moved over to FurryMUCK to spend most of my time in The Purple Nurple, an online, text only gay bar where predominately gay furry yuppies aired their college and post-college woes.  We weren’t just pretending to be cat- and dog-people, and we weren’t just chatting about work, we were cat- and dog-people chatting about work.

Of course, I wasn’t totally secluded in my world of young professional furry gay men, I hung out elsewhere online and experienced everything from multi-session, all-hours of the night role playing (usually dirty) to entire relationships enacted strictly in-character.  However, while there were always ‘OOC’, or out-of-character moments, everyone was joined together in the fact that they were their character.  Even when I was in college, the music department, a decidedly close-knit group, contained several people who were just in it because they happened to be good at playing, say, the oboe, and could give a shit less about music, being an instrumentalist, or even making money off their skill.  In my experience, people like that in furry are rare: there’s the occasional person who has no real attachment to the fandom other than they simply happen to be good at some aspect of it, but they seem to be far from the norm.

All of this adds up to something that I feel is fairly unique to the fandom.  It is a strange line that divides character from self, in a fur.  The line is semipermeable as some would gladly view themselves as their character as a sort of whole-body dysphoria, but there’s still the separation between that aspect of personality and the person as a whole.  Our characters are intangible, non-spatiotemporal; they aren’t something that can be touched or felt, and are closer to an idea than anything real.  However, they form an integral part of our concept of self, whether or not we would actually like to be our anthropomorphic fox character in real life.  They inform our view of the world around us, as well, and not just in some vaguely foxish or wolfish way.

There is no denying that a good portion of the community revolves around art – visual and otherwise.  As with any group of people, though, skill in one particular field is not evenly distributed, and while there are definitely a lot of amazing artists within the fandom, they are still a minority.  We rely on the skills of a relatively small sub-set of our community to provide us with the more tangible representations of our characters, and here is where this blurred line between character and self can cause issues.  However, the way in which furries interact with creators in the community differs greatly from the way in which a professional artist would interact with a client in a few very important ways.  A client may commission an artist for a piece of artwork to appreciate or for others to appreciate – that is, something to hang in their house or something to hang in public.  With  music, you can branch out and say that a client may commission the artist for a piece of music to perform.  In all of these cases, though, nothing works quite like it does in the fandom: with furry commission, you’re not simply commissioning a piece of art to hang around the house and show others, you’re commissioning a representation of your self.

Several seemingly unique issues in the way that artists and clients (or ‘commissioners’, as they’re called, leading one artist to create a “feral Commissioner Gordon”) stem from this strange difference.  Some of the onus of creation is moved from the artist to the client in that much of the picture is designed by the client instead, because, after all, it is the client’s character and the artist’s talent.  This seems to work closer to standard work-for-hire relationships, except that it has strange inflections on licensing: FA notably specifies that uploads fall under a policy of ‘by you/for you’, where a user may upload a picture that they created or that was created for them.  Rather than falling under a standard work-for-hire relationship where it is the artist’s talent and the client’s art, there exists a continuing tension between the two parties, the artist maintaining near full rights over their creation while the client’s rights remain in shady limbo – they maintain rights over the intellectual property of their character, and have some vague sense of ownership over the picture they’ve received, with a shadowy idea of where they’re allowed to show it.

As a personal example, I was commissioned for a three-movement work for French horn and string base to be performed on my senior recital.  As I had been used to the standard furry way of doing things, I insisted that the instrumentalists specify rather more than less of the work, a fact that led to much strife and pain in getting the piece actually performed.  I was unable to live up to their expectations (they wanted me to write like Hindemith, and I’m not Hindemith), they were unmotivated to rehearse a piece that they felt they had a hand in creating, and my composition professor was baffled by the whole scenario.  My senior recital turned out to be one of the most disappointing experiences in my life, largely in part due to the fact that I had failed to properly execute the commission that was expected of me.

From the other side, an artist on FA recently wrote a journal about possibly offering prints of works that were commissioned from him, mentioning that since it was work-for-hire, he would split profit with the client who had commissioned the piece in the first place.  The result was rather out of proportion with the original post and helped to illuminate several of the differences between the professional art world and the art world contained within the furry fandom.  “My talent, not my art [is for sale]. A commissioner buys my talent to make their art,” the artist writes, leading to a slew of comments ranging from decently positive to stunned and angry.  This standard practice is in direct opposition to the way the furry art world works – limited rights to the artist’s art is for sale, rather than simple access to their talent.

No small amount of drama has originated from this scheme.  While the artist above relinquishes their rights to the piece they’ve created to the client as part of standard business practice, this is not the usual within the fandom, and a client doing something such as uploading their art to be seen by a wider audience on other furry art sites such as fchan, e621, or can certainly lead to plenty of strife.  There is the occasional artist who will upload their art to these sites on their own, but the fandom has largely set them up as their villains, several of the sites or members of the sites buying readily into that label and stirring things up on their own.  This concern over use of art is doubly strange for a community so focused on appropriating heavily licensed characters such as those from Sonic the Hedgehog or anything from Disney for themselves.

The concepts of character and self are rooted deep in the furry community.  Making a negative comment about someone’s fursuit or images of their character can lead to trouble, as the words can be seen as a slight against that person.  After all, the fursuit or image is a representation of the character’s owner – even if you agree that a thing is ugly, a careless phrase can cause offense if that thing is dear to you.  The result is something akin to an offshoot of the Dunning-Kruger effect – unskilled people holding illusory superiority while skilled people hold illusory inferiority – in that the one who receives a representation of their character is likely to hold it to some illusory ideal higher than just any similar piece.  Meaning in art is a tough subject, and it’s only made more complicated within the fandom when it comes to character art.

The two intertwined entities of character and self comprise a large part of furry.  The fandom as it is is hard enough to pin down to any one definition, and I think that’s due in large part to the myriad ways in which one interacts with one’s character or characters.  For some, their character is inextricably a part of themselves, closer to an anima or animus in the Jungian sense.  For others, myself included, a character may carry smaller aspects of personality, and not, as a result, be as all-encompassing.  Speaking for myself, I have three or four of what I would consider characters that I often interact with, and each acts differently, each more focused on a different aspect of my personality.  This didn’t use to be the case, though, as I previously had a single character that was more all-encompassing and close to my self.

Along with the shift in character interaction came a shift in friend circles, and it left me wondering how much this internal interaction define how we build up and maintain our lives within furry.  I asked around on twitter and got a few answers: the way in which we relate to our characters does seem to have some relation to the types of people we find ourselves friends with.  Whether that’s cause, effect, or some sort of subconscious correlation, I can’t say.  All of this pondering around the psychological aspects of pretending to be an animal person with a lot of other people pretending to be animal people may just be another symptom of being a firmly-entrenched member of the very same fandom.  A commenter on a previous entry used the word ‘avatar’ instead of character, and I feel that this was an appropriate choice of words, moreso than character.  A character is an entity not necessarily connected to some person in reality, but an avatar has connotations of incarnation and appearance of something outside the world in which it interacts.  This is the idea behind our characters: they aren’t just some sort of disjoint idea that relates back to us, even if we create more than one.  They are aspects of us, and as such, are integral to us.  No wonder we can get so touchy in regards to our interactions with them.

About Makyo

Makyo spends her time as a frumpy snow leopard, usually, but she's all over the map. She's been around furry since about 2000 under a variety of names. She writes, programs, and screws around with music.

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7 thoughts on “Character versus Self

  1. “On the Internet,” the New Yorker once famously (and in this context ironically) quipped, “nobody knows you’re a dog.”

    Theoretically, the Internet allows you to cast everything about your personal identity off. If I wanted to pretend to be an astrophysicist or a time traveller, the anonymity granted by this medium (and the fact that, if called out on it, there’s no real way to force accountability) certainly gives me the power to do so.

    This actually used to be one of the dominant narratives when people talked about the Internet — this presumption that the default online behaviour was outright lying. You’d see stories about what now, I see, Wikipedia has coined “Münchausen by Internet.” People who were active in bulletin boards in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as I was, all have their stories about people like this.

    At some point, that presumption faded (or more accurately, I suspect, morphed into a middle ground of graduated skepticism when the stress of constantly believing everyone around you to be a swindler grew to be too much to bear). Now we’re left with the same sorts of falsehoods — exaggerated personal accomplishments, nonexistent military service, and the like — that are already common in the real world. In a sense, the two have merged.

    So to me, furry avatars are curious in the same way that furry expression as a whole is curious — specifically, as you put it, this willingness to ‘roleplay’ without being “outside themselves.” Furries are therefore recapitulating the same trend that has accompanied the ubiquitisation of the ‘Net in general. There’s some cognitive dissonance that emerges, though, when ubiquity and anthropomorphism cross. Imagine it as a newspaper caption: “Pictured: John Doe, computer programmer and raccoon.”

    Say what? But it’s true. In furry roleplaying circles you’ll find plenty of fantastic creatures and space marines, but you’ll also find a lot of very “mundane, boring-ass” average joes. More interesting to me is that even when people shift their occupations or personalities, it’s rarely as dramatic as you’d think absolute freedom would provoke. People become bartenders, bit actors, journalists, policemen, teachers — I knew a guy who occasionally roleplayed as a pizza delivery dude. Bob Pizzadog.

    The unspoken question that this raises for me: “Where the hell are the supermen?” Where are the furry Medal of Honor winners? Where is the real-life anthropomorphic Spider-Man who uses his eight legs to foil crime? Where is the charming, suave James Bond leaving a trail of scantily clad anthropomorphic river otters or whatever in his wake? Where are the bestselling authors, the Olympians, the princes and the politicians?

    Video games, another common means of translating one’s personality into digital form, turn us into larger than life mythic figures. We become the hero that saves the kingdom, the architect of cities and empires, the superlative race-car driver; the soldier who kills a hundred men without batting an eye. We recognise this escapism as absurdity — the just-released Saints Row game is wanton deconstruction of its own genre — but lap it up anyway.

    At the same time, pop culture in the last few decades has found other currents — the slacker heroes of “Clerks” and “Harold and Kumar,” the quotidian humor of “Seinfeld.” The entire acting career of Michael Cera. Furry claims its influences as Robin Hood and Ringworld, but if you look at your average gathering of furry avatars (as opposed to furry people) it’s terribly unmythic. The canonical furry chatroom, I think, is the bar, and it’s (almost?) never a noirish gathering place or the raucous saloon of the Old West. It’s that café from “Friends,” or Garrison Keillor’s Sidetrack Tap: full of ordinary, relatable people with a penchant for snappy dialogue.

    Even the werewolf just wants a caipirinha every now and again.

    And of course, nobody ever really asks the difficult questions. Not, like, “is there a god” but: “surely resistive touchscreens would be preferable in a world where everyone’s fingers have built in styluses and are covered in fur, besides?” Or: “Hey, [adjective][species], where exactly are the glasses your banner character wears resting, and aren’t they about to fall off?” There’s no disbelief to suspend; it’s taken as an easy conceit.

    To some extent, I wonder if this is because “is furry instead of human,” where group dynamics is concerned, is the exception that proves the rule. We’re social creatures, and deeply cognisant of our roles in groups and hierarchies. Transgressive behavior is a way to explore the boundaries established by those constructs: “if I pretend to be a decorated soldier, I experience a different perspective and power relationship with the people I speak with than I normally experience working at Kinko’s.”

    In furry, everyone has committed to giving up their native species. This makes it a leveling agent: we can immediately take it as a given that nobody is exactly as they seem, if for no other reason than they’re not really a small-clawed otter, and then we can move on to the real meat of human interaction. Of course, having done this, it appears that the relationships that we’re interested in exploring are very ordinary ones. Maybe because, when it’s us we’re talking about — not some superhero on the big screen — it really is a lot easier to relate to joking around with friends in a quiet, well-lit tavern than it is to fighting off ninjas.

    To the extent that you’re right, though, and “furry” and “self” are intertwined, that’s not a surprising conclusion. Furry fandom essentially demands that you pick a mask, but the demands end there. If you want your furry self to be identical except for a change of DNA, hey, go for it. Nobody’s going to stop you from being a vegetarian tiger, if you want; as a Border collie, I’d say I get maybe one joke about sheep in a year. Maybe two. The impositions imposed by the anthropomorphism we claim to enjoy are nearly always ignored, because of course the real focus is just on being comfortable, and being something we can extend ourselves into.

    A similar phenomenon exists in furry literature: what does it mean for a story to be ‘furry’? That’s a longer and more rambling discussion, but suffice it to say in the early days of the fandom it was considered appropriate to make some effort to explain where all the damned fur came from. Today, it’s sufficient to open in media res: the characters are animals because we say they are, now let’s get on with the show.

    It strikes me: do you not suspect that this method of creative expression and the mundane tenor of so much furry roleplaying essentially demonstrate a rejection of the notion that most furries see themselves as being somehow “part animal”?


    1. I’ve been wondering about this off and on for a while – while I sit online and chat with people in our cozy bar online. The description mentions that it’s a dance club, dark, with a fancy lighting setup and TVs scattered around, pounding bass, the works. We all treat it similar to a coffee shop, though, if we even mention it at all. We talk about the latest YouTube poop, current events, work. And this is the type of place I run into all over the ‘net, from the Nurple on FurryMUCK, the Rainbow Club on SPR, various places on Taps and IRC.

      I know that a lot of this is selection bias, as those are the types of places that I hunt out for relaxation and maybe a little light role-playing. I’ve talked to a few friends whom I know are much more into things than I am, and though they disagree with my personal conclusions, I’m always a little surprised that such places are some of the most popular on whatever world hosts them. A lot of what goes on there would seem out of place in a non-furry chat, but that’s mostly references to species.

      That latter part does translate some into my offline life: my boss, a furry who met me after I got my suit, regularly refers to my nervous hands as ‘creepy little otter paws’, JD and I refer to each other by our species as pet names, et cetera. It’s strange, now that I think about it, but I think you’re right. I don’t really see myself as being “part animal” in any way. For me, it’s closer to aligning with certain aspects, liking certain features, or actively pretending to be one, rather than feeling as if I have some deeper connection with otters or foxes, or feeling that I’m part otter or fox. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I can see how this might be applied to many of those around me.

      1. That sort of explanation is what I hear a lot, so I absolutely presume that it (or something like it) is what motivates most people. For myself, I picked the species I use as my avatar essentially at random, and modulo occasional efforts to change it up a bit I’ve generally stayed this way for the last eight years.

        It does bring me some quirky pleasure to indulge in the trappings of canine life, I guess, such as chasing tennis balls, but at the end of the day I’ve always imagined that my avatar goes off to their job, puts in a hard day’s work, comes home and… I don’t know. Logs into IRC and pretends to be a human.

        For what it’s worth, I’m not sure how much is selection bias. I would be more inclined to think so were it not so hard to think of a counterexample. I myself run an IRC server whose dominant feature is a… well, the kind of place you’d “hunt out for relaxation and maybe a little light role-playing.” It is, of course, a bar.

        It emerged organically from an ordinary chatroom, and I’ve seen this happen in other places as well. Perhaps it is simply that if you gather enough furries in one electronic place, they will spontaneously generate a pub? If this is axiomatic, let us consider it to be Makyo’s Law (with an appropriate ordinal, if you have multiples!)


  2. In some ways it’s not quite easy to seperate the “self” from the “personae”.
    I liken it to an actor playing a role, and that actor whilst one actor might interpret MacBeth as a jerk-ass oppertunistic bastard, one might see him as being caught up in greater thing and taking on the mantle of King, only because Duncan was a worse king, and being caught up by the scheming of his wife?

    A lot of how your personae behaves owes a lot to not having to *see* people. But that can be a double-edged sword, in that it’s easy to shoot your mouth off.

    But as real-life things do invariably intrude, as they do a lot of switching can go between talking about the latest sports score and tragedy, to talking about how cool those c-beams looked when you banked your star-fighter off the Tannhauser Gate.

    I’m sure other people have their own methods to refer to the meat behind the fourth-wall that is doing the typing and the ‘acting’. But I like to refer to my ‘Typing-monkey’, as doing something (going to the toilet, getting a cuppa…doing such and soforth).

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