Being an old curmudgeon, I tend not to put a lot of credence in the opinions of others until I’ve established who they are and what they’ve accomplished. I don’t accept medical advice from non-doctors or nurses, for example. Similarly, should I ever experience legal difficulties I’ll spend the money to see an actual lawyer, not ask the patrons of a local bar what they think about the matter. Credibility, in other words, is an important aspect of human existence, and has been ever since we learned to communicate. It’s important, something we weigh and evaluate constantly while going about our everyday lives. Doctors and lawyers are pretty credible as a rule, in part because they belong to professional associations and go through certification processes that at least attempt to keep them that way. But… Is the car salesman who claims you can easily afford what seems to be an outlandishly high monthly payment entirely credible? Or, for that matter, a politician seeking your vote? Just possibly not.
In keeping with the above theme, let me therefore establish my own credentials and perhaps earn a bit of trust in my own right. I’ve been writing furry fiction—mostly transformation-themed—since about 1997. That’s a literary career of almost twenty years and counting. To clarify, I don’t mean that I’ve been poking around at writing for that long, or that I’ve written a story here and there over that period of time. Rather, I’ve been a serious, high-output furry writer for almost two decades, having written roughly twenty-five published novels and novellas, probably about the same number of short stories, and maybe another hundred mostly “internet storyverse” works of various lengths. Accomplishing this— alongside maintaining a full-time job and owning my own home— has required me, in essence, to think about furry fiction and very little but furry fiction and the furry characters which define it for many hours a week, over a span of time that constitutes most of the history of the fandom to date.
Perhaps the thing I think about the most is, why should a given character be furry in the first place?
As mentioned above, I’m mostly a transformation author. When you approach the problem from that angle, the need to ask the “Why?” question is perhaps a bit more obvious. If you start with someone as human and want them to end up as something else, well… That’s something clearly out of the ordinary and the need for a credible explanation is glaringly obvious. Having written so much along these lines, I’ve come up with more different rationales than I can possibly list here. Sometimes, in science fiction settings, it’s been for a movie role or to perform in interstellar circuses or for animal research— I can’t possibly list them all. Other times, in less scientifically rigorous settings, my change agent has been an implausible virus or even outright magic. The bottom line, however, is this— If you’re going to start with a human and make any sort of ex-human out of him, there must be some sort of justification or else the whole thing is pointless. It’s almost inconceivable, even. As I type this I’m trying to form of a coherent picture of how I’d even approach writing such a piece, but my brain-boggler is spinning twice as fast as my imaginator; I can’t gain sufficient traction to get anywhere. A coherent transformation story lacking a credible reason for the Big Change is virtually inconceivable.
Somewhere along the way, while writing all these dozens of works of transformation fiction that required a justification for the transformation, I slowly came to a realization. Not only was coming up with a plausible explanation for the TF vital to the work’s credibility, but it improved the story in myriad other ways as well. For one thing, it often in and of itself suggested a plotline. Take “man goes anthro to make a movie”, for example. What an enormous treasure-trove that gives you, as an author! You’ve got your protagonist and his motivation right there, handed to you on a platter. A setting too, if you want to use it— the movie-set itself! You have a bajillion and six sources of potential conflict— rival co-stars, directors, funding, the actor dealing with his new shape…. You can go anywhere! In my own case, I decided that the movie would never be made due to world financial collapse. The protagonist was instead forced to pioneer an entirely new kind of life, working out new ways to leverage and explore his innate talents and gaining new insights via surviving a series of not-entirely-human adventures. Eventually he grew to the point that when what amounted to God was about to be born via the same technology that enabled his own transformation, my protagonist was there ready and waiting to make it all possible. Thus, my first novel practically wrote itself.
All of this originated from “How can I justify this transformation and thereby make it credible to my readers?” If you had a few hours, even all these years later I could still relate almost every step of the process. Indeed, these are among my happiest memories.
It never ceases to amaze me, how powerful this magic is— I’ve thought about it rather a lot, since first figuring it out. My current working theory is that creating credible transformations (and please be patient, Dear Reader— we’re going to work our way back around to mainstream furry, I promise!) not only does away with half the actual work of storywriting, but also and more importantly forces the would-be author to introduce a bit of badly-needed discipline into their own thinking. Take the example above— in order to created a transformed movie-star, I had to devote considerable skull-sweat to the technology required. After all, for the transformation to be truly credible it couldn’t just be a magic box. What might the world that created such tech look like? What might its other capabilities be, and how might they be abused? How would my protagonist’s life— or even his entire world— be affected by such factors? Most importantly of all, how much of this has real story-potential and how much much “fictional oomph” can be extracted from it?
Lots, usually! Tons and tons! More than you ever dare dream of, going in.
All of this is of course familiar territory to students of science fiction. In a sense, my “sudden insight” as to the importance of a credible transformation mechanism in writing TF stories was nothing more than a not-so-original variation on SF’s “what-if” premise. (Indeed, being a long-time science fiction fan myself, I’m a bit ashamed it took me so long to perceive the connection.) It’s almost not going too far to say that the entire SF genre is built on postulating an important change in the status quo— technological, sociological, environmental, even sometimes cultural— and exploring the ramifications thereof via the adventures of a protagonist. While my flavor of transformation fiction doubles down on this— not only has the status quo changed, but the lens through which the protagonist views it as well— the connection is obvious. Establishing credible explanations for why my characters became something other than what they once were practically forced me to tap into the same mechanisms and conventions— and employ the same rigorous creative discipline— that’ve made science fiction the enormously popular artistic success that it is. Even when employing magical or mystical causations, the very act of providing a defined causation at all, a reason why and a mechanism by which it all happened— and then rigorously incorporating this into all that follows— lends my work an air of confidence and, even more importantly, a sense of credibility and therefore believability. And how immensely grateful I am for it!
For… Isn’t willing suspension of disbelief the very first hurdle an author must conquer?
By the time I finally got around to writing significant amounts of “conventional” (by which I mean non-TF) furry fiction, I’d already long since taken this lesson to heart and incorporated it deeply into my writing process. Therefore, it’s natural that long before ever touching my fingers to the keyboard I firmly establish in my head why my characters are anthropomorphic. I’ve not yet written nearly as much conventional furry as TF stuff, so I haven’t explored nearly so many justifications. Despite this, precisely the same creative pattern has emerged. Once I work out why there are anthrocreatures in a given setting, the who, what, where and when become relatively simple and practically take care of themselves. Why is the only real toughie, and I think that’s the reason it’s such a stumbling block for so many authors.
The problem is that, unless you’re writing strictly for a furry-fandom audience, and not even all of that, it’s also a world-class stumbling-block for readers. Even I—and, I assure you, I’m a fur to the bone—can’t read a furry story in which the anthros “just are” without at some point wincing. While someday this may no longer hold true as we insinuate our soft, furry flexibility-of-viewpoint ever deeper into the soul of mainstream culture, for now and for many years to come unjustified anthros are and shall for most people remain absolutely lethal to willing suspension of disbelief. If an author seeks to be read outside the fandom, this becomes a huge factor. If after writing a million words of mostly-furry fiction (and probably far more) I still need some sort of justification in order to suspend my disbelief, then how can Jane and Joe Averagereader be expected to react? “Huh?” and a blank stare immediately followed by a search for something a bit easier to swallow is about the best one can hope for. And, as we all know but seldom admit, the reaction is usually even worse. Cartoons and such get relatively a free pass on this subject, yes. There’s something fundamentally different about how stories presented in a visual versus written medium are perceived— I suspect it may have something to do with the principle that being presented with a ready-made visual image is less mentally taxing (and therefore engenders less critical thought and mental intimacy) than constructing something from scratch in one’s own mind. If I want my literary work to be taken seriously, however, at some point I must not only explain why my bunnies are bunnies and not either ordinary people or many-tentacled octopods, but also smoothly incorporate said reason into the larger work. Not only must it be justified factually, but artistically as well. Even the work’s overall theme must reflect its innate anthropomorphism, or it’ll fall flat on its face and never be read by more than a handful.
(Unless it’s furry-porn, of course. Though, I’d submit, even there the existence of the anthropomorphic characters in a sense logically justified. Not in the author’s work, mind you. But rather, in the reader’s mind and libido. In this highly-specific case it’s a safe assumption that no further explanation is required.)
Given the overwhelming story-structuring and audience-widening benefits that almost automatically accrue from writing credible furries— whether scientifically/magically or (less commonly, and potentially the subject of another furry-literary essay entirely) through subtle shadings of symbolism a la Richard Adams and Rudyard Kipling, I often wonder why more authors don’t take advantage of the practice. Is it merely a matter of stylistic difference? Does it perhaps seem like too much work? Or… Perhaps many of our writers have descended so far down the rabbit hole in the furry sense that they’ve lost touch with the artistic sensibilities of “normal” people?
It’s not for me to say, any more than it’s ultimately my place to judge what does and does not constitute a good story. In the end there’s no right or wrong way to write, or for that matter to create any other sort of art. Personal taste is in the end its own utterly inexplicable justification. As my grandfather used to point out, they paint some cars red and some green. Certain people won’t own anything but green, while others insist on the exact opposite. In the end, even though neither group can justify themselves logically, the manufacturer has to offer both in order to please everyone. And yet… As a writer of considerable experience it is, I think, proper for me to point out the advantages of thinking things all the way through and establishing the existence of your furry characters as both credible and believable. It really does, in my experience, tend to create stronger, more thoughtful and better-reasoned works, while in the long run requiring only a fraction of the effort. Ultimately it’s also the secret of how I’ve been able to average well over a novel a year plus write tons of other stuffs over such an extended period of time.
Sweat the details, is what I’m trying to say. Justifying your furryverse may appear difficult at first, but in reality the justifications are as limitless as your own imagination. Who knows? You may find the benefits to be…