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Writer’s Craft #49 – Writing a Wolf

December 5, 2011
Nikki Broadwell

Nikki Broadwell

Nikki Broadwell studied English and Art in college before embarking on a marriage, two daughters, and a series of careers in the greeting card business and silk painting. “I won’t reveal my age,” she describes herself on her Clarion write-a-thon page, “but let’s just say I participated in protests against the Vietnam War.” Nikki now writes fulltime, ten to twelve hours a day. Finiche, the wolf, features in her fantasy trilogy (http://wolfmoontrilogy.com/).


I have very kindly been asked to guest blog on “writing Finiche”. Finiche is a wolf and a major character in the third book of my trilogy entitled, Wolfmoon.

I didn’t want to anthropomorphize Finiche, nor did I want to trivialize his wolfness. I had to find a way to keep him true to his species as well as have him able to communicate, since he is an integral part of the story. In my first draft the wolves had their own POV but as I was writing in third person and not omniscient, I re-worked it to have the wolves communicate through the main character. This gave me more freedom of expression. Through telepathy their communications would not be by direct words but more diffuse. Here’s an excerpt:

When they came to a stream Finiche’s lambent eyes stared into hers as he communicated his message: this stream was clean but many were not, what the men were doing had contaminated the waterways or what was left of them.

As the story progressed I became a bit bolder with Finiche’s communications:

As Finiche came to a stop in front of her, Maeve laid her hand on his wide head. He gazed at her out of his intelligent amber eyes. His thoughts were so clear in her mind: I traveled with your grandsire. He is now with his mate not far from here and I heard your call.

How do you write your animal or non-human characters? Is telepathy one of your methods?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2011 7:31 am

    I’m always wary of making understanding between different species seem too easy. We have enough trouble understanding members of our own species; wouldn’t someone whose experience of the world is completely different, think in a completely different way? The whole point, for me, is to explore that difference.

    It’s too easy to romanticize the noble alien. To seem realistic, they have to have flaws and limitations.

    If you’re to have a meaningful conversation with something, it can’t be just an animal; it has to be “like a wolf, only smarter.” And being smarter changes the creature in important ways. What is their culture like? What stories do they tell each other? Do they tell stories? They will have dumb ideas, just as humans do, but they’ll be dumb in different areas.

    How are wolves different from people? They don’t have hands and aren’t used to the idea of creating things; they can use what’s there. They rely much more on their sense of smell than we do. They sniff each others’ butts, getting useful information thereby. They kill things and eat them raw. They don’t wear clothing or ornamentation. They might deal frankly with subjects that might make a human uncomfortable — and vice versa. They might not, as a rule, know who their father is (I’m guessing), let alone their grandfather, so the mother and grandmother might be a much more important relationship. They’re very social animals, even more so than humans. A lone wolf is a sick wolf. And I don’t really know that much about wolves; if I were writing a wolfish character I would read a book by someone who studies their behavior and relationships.

    Telepathy seems like an easy out, but even that doesn’t solve everything; it might even make matters worse by making people think they get the message when they don’t really. Just because you can pick up a transmission, doesn’t mean you can understand what’s behind it or accept it. If I have a concept that the other party doesn’t, would they instantly understand it on first encountering it in a telepathic communication? Concepts are linked in ways that are determined by culture and biology; an idea that to one person suggests a related idea, to another very different person might suggest a very different idea, or might simply be puzzling in context.

  2. December 5, 2011 9:12 am

    What you say is interesting–for me the arc of the story was more important than getting into the intricacies of the alien species–in my opinion, a story of this nature can get bogged down with too much detail. I know a lot about wolves since I’ve read about them, seen them in the wild and had dogs all my life. I do believe, actually, in telepathy between species as I have experienced it with several of my dogs–(lying in bed feeling depressed I would feel my dog’s nose on my hand)–I have also experienced this phenomenon with a horse I owned for fourteen years–Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  3. December 5, 2011 11:37 am

    Such a rich topic for discussion!

    I have the first draft of a novel in which one of the main characters is a tree. One of the best parts of writing her early chapters was really sussing out her thought patterns, concerns, and motivations, which were very different from those of the human characters.

    About a third of the way in, a human MC gets shoved against the tree, and they form a telepathic bond. I think I’ve done a good job (for a first draft) of developing how the tree becomes more humanlike in her thinking and the human becoming more treelike in hers. But what will need more development in revisions is that stage after immediate contact, to show more of the confusion that Andre’s talking about–when the transmission’s been received but doesn’t yet make sense.

    • December 5, 2011 3:13 pm

      Hi Eli,
      Your book sounds really interesting! I like how you handled it…and yes, confusion. My main character has a hard time at the beginning realizing that the odd messages in her head are coming from the wolf…I love the idea of a tree’s POV!

  4. December 5, 2011 5:39 pm

    Great topic! I have a character who understands animals, so the mechanics of communication are no problem and I’ve been able to have him interact with a wide range of creatures from roaches to cats. The fun is making what they say as true to species as I can. In the third book, I’ll be introducing his mother who can hear trees.

    I find it impossible to involve the animals in solving any of his problems, however. They either don’t understand or don’t care. I would have to anthropomorphize them to make them his partners in any way.

    • December 8, 2011 9:13 am

      Having your character understand animals is a good way of dealing with it…and I’m sure you had to do a lot of research to stay true to it! In mine the wolf is my heroine’s partner in that the problem she’s dealing with is his as well since the world they live in is being destroyed…This has been such an interesting topic that I think I will blog about it on my home blog…science versus mysticism in writing animals or something along those lines….fascinating to hear what everyone has to say!

  5. December 6, 2011 2:43 am

    I have a novel coming out next year about human colonists on a planet where the plants are intelligent. But the story started as non-fiction research into plants here on Earth, which led to the discovery of how plants here control animals, including humans. For example, apple trees need their seeds distributed, so they give us fruit to bribe us to carry their seeds away. As a result, apple trees have taken over the state of Washington, with unwitting human help.

    At least that’s how the plants look at it. So when I began to write from the point of view of one of the dominant species of plants, I’d already learned what plants want in their lives and from us, but also why from a plant’s point of view we could seem inferior. Our lives are repetitive, for example, but perennial plants face each new season measurably bigger and stronger and, possibly, wiser.

    On Earth, plants can move, count, tell time with extraordinary accuracy, communicate with each other, and seem to make decisions. And every day they both fight and cooperate with the other plants and animals in their environment. Imagine what a planet would be like if they could actually think as well — that’s what I did.

    So my point-of-view plant is both smart and powerful. It wants and needs human help, but it has a lot of resources to use to create the relationship according to its needs and wants. Plants should dominate animals, after all.

    • December 6, 2011 9:24 am

      Have you read the Secret Life of Plants? My husband always jokingly talks about vegetarians and why they don’t see that a carrot is the same as a chicken and so on…I love the idea of a plant’s POV and us being inferior–we do seem very limited in our intelligence–constantly at war with something, and never resolving anything or growing toward more understanding…I’ll be interested to read your book!

    • December 11, 2011 8:53 pm

      What’s your book called? I want to read it too.

      • December 12, 2011 1:57 am

        Right now, the title is “Transplants,” but I and my editor don’t like it because it can suggest medical procedures rather than to uproot and transfer residence. So now the title is in the hands of the publisher to see if he can come up with a better idea. The publisher is EDGE and the novel should be out in 2012.

      • December 12, 2011 2:36 pm

        Maybe something involving roots, like “Root Causes.”

      • December 12, 2011 2:54 pm

        or ‘uprooted’. or ‘make like a tree and leave’.🙂

      • December 13, 2011 1:40 am

        “Uprooted” or “Root Causes” might make a great title. I’ll pass it on. Thanks.

  6. December 7, 2011 1:56 am

    Actually, I avoided “The Secret Life of Plants” because it’s pseudoscience. I read a lot of scientific journals, Darwin (he wrote a key work on plant movement), works like “The Rose’s Kiss, a natural history of flowers” by Peter Bernhardt, chatted with botanists — and what they had to say was amazing and disturbing, and totally weird. Plants, by the way, are in a constant state of war. This is why roses have thorns. They use them to climb over other plants and take all the sunlight.

  7. G Martin Cook permalink
    December 17, 2011 12:11 am

    I love this topic! My MC is involved in a werewolf pack and ive tried to blend human and wolf behaviour into their own unique subculture. My MC is not a werewolf so there is much he doesnt understand about how they relate and i have fun exploring it in the story. To that end, i created a supporting character that acts as a third party in Pack/non-Pack affairs. Though not a werewolf himself, he has the power to communicate with wolves and dogs and, by extension, werewolves vi supernatural means. I define his powers as spiritual/magical, since he channels a ‘Wolf Spirit’ for a variety of effects. I have also recently added a character that communicates with trees in a manner akin to telelpathy. She is underdeveloped, so far, but her personality has been adversely affected by cummuning with trees for most of her life and she has difficulty relating to humanity. The comments in this blog have been very insightful on both topics and i just wanted to say thanks.

    • December 17, 2011 8:48 am

      Thanks for your comment! Your book sounds interesting…Writing this blog led me to blog on my own site about magic–it is archived now but it was only a couple of weeks ago if you want to read it–http://niksblog-authorinprogress.blogspot.com

  8. February 6, 2012 10:16 am

    I’m a little late to the party (unreliable internet access due to a house fire), but wanted to share my series’ intelligent animals. They’re slithers, intelligent snakelike creatures (in appearance) who pass on prophecies from the gods to the human People. Rapport between slithers and humans is not common, but those born with this gift are part of the Prophecy clan. The co-rulers of the tribe are a human queen and a slither queen, both with powerful rapport. They’re somewhat anthropomorphized, due to their intelligence and living among the People, but they’re some of my writers group’s favorite characters. I certainly enjoy writing them!

    • February 6, 2012 11:31 am

      Sounds interesting! I like the idea because of the serpent representing our instinctual self–one small thing, though–the name reminded me immediately of Slitheran house in Harry Potter…

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