Using Animals Symbolically in Your Stories

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Some animals we love and invite into our homes as family. Other animals we revile and imagine as pure evil. The most ancient stories that humankind told often involved animals, as they offered kinship, antagonistic struggle, and sources of food in areas where plants and vegetables didn’t easily grow. Aside from the characters they have embodied in storytelling, animals have long carried mythological symbolism as well. While readers and viewers might not be fully aware of the meaning behind an animal’s use, thinkers from Carl Jung to Joseph Campbell have suggested that their symbolic implications speak to us in unconscious ways.

Animals do not even have to serve as actual characters in a story to communicate themes and ideas. A protagonist can sit on a park bench and simply see an animal. The presence of that animal in the story can suggest what the character is thinking or what will soon happen to her. In Rampage, Dwayne Johnson deals with three different animals that have become infected with a dangerous pathogen. Each has a different meaning for Johnson’s character. While the animals in your story might not play as big of a role as the gorilla in Rampage, there are subtle ways to involve non-human creatures in the themes and plot of your narrative. Here are four animals that can be used in multiple ways as symbols in stories.

BIRDS

Though birds carry many unique qualities, none has quite captured the human imagination as powerfully as their capacity for flight. Birds can represent a character’s potential to escape their circumstances. They can symbolize our striving for the transcendent heavens. They have the ability to carry numerous meanings for us, depending on their shape and color.

Alfred Hitchcock used them to symbolize mysterious evil in The Birds and explicit evil in Psycho. J.K. Rowling used them as the symbol of freedom to help Albus Dumbledore escape in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Rowling used birds in several of the Potter stories to symbolize a vast array of different meanings. Crows and ravens have long symbolized the ominous, the evil, and even death itself. Vultures have similar impact. Doves have symbolized Aphrodite, angelic presence, and the concepts of peace, hope, and promise. And of course, we are all familiar with the wisdom symbolized by owls, the majesty of falcons and eagles, and the insights of the peacock, with the many “seeing eyes” on its feathers.

RATS and MICE

In Ratatouille, Remy the rat chef states, “I’m a rat, which means life is hard.” Filmmaker Noah Baumbach offered a different perspective in a story he penned for the New Yorker called Mouse au Vin, saying, “Mice are so weird. They’re like humans in rodent costumes.” Like birds, rats can symbolize a wide scope of things — everything from struggle to human beings themselves. These creatures can strike fear in those that encounter them or serve as their pets. The ability of mice to squeeze their bodies through small places speaks to the tenacity they offer as symbols.

In The Departed, Jack Nicholson’s character gives a memorable monologue about the disgusting nature of rats, warning those around him not to betray him. However, in Hindu mythology, rats are often companions and helpers, as they also are in CinderellaStuart Little and Mickey Mouse have both embodied mice as symbols of innocence and the adorable. An American Tale uses mice to symbolize the very human feeling of being an outcast. With the ability to represent the best of ourselves and our most grotesque fears, rats and mice offer a great number of narrative possibilities.

DOGS

There are few creatures in the animal kingdom as beloved as the dog. While Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs has stirred controversy for its use of racial motifs and potentially appropriated culture, few can argue with the themes used in the film around what dogs mean to those that love them. Films such as Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows carry deep meaning for many because of their relatability to those who have lost dogs as pets.

Of course, dogs are not always used in stories as the loyal colleague. Mythological tales about the hounds of hell and inhabitants of the underworld are just as common as tales of canine nobility. Stephen King’s Cujo is a noted example of the power of dogs to represent unleashed rage and evil. Despite these portrayals and uses, the loyalty of dogs like Bolt and Toto in The Wizard of Oz will eternally make dogs symbols of the best of what we hope for in others… and ourselves.

HORSES

Nearly as beloved as dogs, horses have long been used as symbols of strength, endurance, and life’s mysterious ability to carry us from one moment to the next. Horses have a special relationship with American storytelling, thanks to their archetypal uses in the earliest Native narratives of this land to the western expansion that was only made possible through their determination. Muybridge’s horse has a significant place in the use of film as a storytelling medium. Horses were also integral to the first American film that told a story, The Great Train Robbery in 1903.

From The Black Stallion to Flicka to War Horse, these graceful animals have served as central figures to the development of protagonists. Horses have symbolized power, mutual bonds and benefits, and freedom. Their mere image in a story brings a psychological environment of open emotions for many viewers. From Spirit to Seabiscuit, horses remind us of the power we have when our own wildest drives and impulses can be tamed and focused in productive ways.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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