Things Writers Should Know About Animal Behavior

Many writers end up portraying animals that react very inappropriately to their circumstances, creating a very jarring experience for anyone remotely familiar with animal behavior. Here are some pointers for writing animal behavior that's a bit more plausible.

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Snarling, growling, hissing, etc. are for intimidation.

If an animal is trying to drive something off its territory, snarl away. If it's trying to scare away something that might try to eat it, hiss it up. If something is getting a little too close to the babies, make with the growling. On the other hand, if your animal is hunting, then it should be as quiet as possible - any unnecessary noise will alert its prey to its presence, making it more likely that the prey will escape.

Most animals usually avoid risks where possible.

Though exceptions exist, in most cases, animals will actually try to avoid getting into a fight, particularly with something that's very much capable of fighting back. Even if they did win the initial encounter, they might not be able to survive the injuries, rendering their hard-won victory hollow.

For example, if something perceived as competition or a threat enters an animal's territory, its first reaction is most likely going to be putting on some sort of warning display. If that fails to drive off the intruder, the animal might up the ante by making a few aggressive moves. In most cases, it's not until everything else has failed that the animal is going to risk an actual fight. If and when a fight does occur, it probably won't be to the death (unless one of them wants to eat the other) - usually, one animal will disengage and retreat before too serious an injury can occur.

Where things are most likely to turn really serious is if the animal is desperate, such as if it thinks it's cornered and there's no other way out - then, it will fight, and with everything it's got, if it has to. Animals that care for their young in any capacity will often fight fiercely to protect them, and depending on what you're dealing with may not even offer the courtesy of a warning first.

Also, if a predator's prey turns out to be capable of defending itself to the point where the predator is likely to suffer serious injury if it keeps trying to take down the prey, it'll most likely decide that the effort isn't worth the risk and give up the chase to seek easier prey instead.

Animals aren't going to chase something down forever or for no good reason.

An animal might chase something away from its territory or young, but will call it quits and turn back when it believes the intruder has been chased off far enough (though whether your stamina will last "far enough" is another matter). A hungry predator isn't going to keep chasing after one specific target for ages, but will go after whatever is closest and easiest to catch. A predator with a nice fresh kill to eat isn't going to lose interest in it and go hunting down the next thing that walks by - sure, it might try to scare and chase off anything that looks like it might be trying to steal its food, but that's about it.

There's nothing especially peaceful or gentle about herbivores.

Herbivores may not eat meat, but it doesn't mean they won't use lethal force if they feel it's necessary. Hippopotamuses, for example, are highly aggressive and kill more people per year than any other animal in Africa besides the mosquito, and will attack people on land or in boats without any seeming provocation. And although they don't eat people, they might chew them to death regardless - and where a predators are often equipped to deal relatively quick and efficient kills, hippopotamuses aren't: they just crush you to death with their flat herbivore teeth. To be fair, they are an extreme example - but the bottom line is: just because something's an herbivore doesn't mean you can expect it to be sweet and cuddly.

Being unafraid of humans is not the same as being tame.

Domestic animals have been bred to minimize aggressive and domineering behaviors, whereas wild ones have not. Where you can be confident that a golden retriever puppy won't try to start throwing its weight around and challenging you for dominance once it hits adolescence, you can't count on the same from a wolf. (Many people with exotic pets that never caused any serious trouble as youngsters found themselves at quite a loss when their precious little babies actually became adults with adult instincts and desires - EG, establish social dominance, establish and defend territory, and have sex.)

What's more, while many domestic animals might be content to be kept in relatively small space (EG, your house and backyard) many wild animals need much, much bigger ranges to roam to be happy in. Ever felt frustrated or cranky because you felt like you were penned up for too long or kept on too short a chain? If so, consider that you're a member of a species that actually does pretty well with a small amount of space, and with far more patience for being cooped up than a lot of animals have - so any animal that roams in nature will probably be far more bothered with confinement than you.

In any case, wild animals that are kept in confinement will often become highly destructive, and in some cases ultimately lash out and attack without any warning and seriously injure or even kill their owners. (While some domesticated animals can do this, it's very, very rare by comparison.)

A bear that's used to sharing territory with humans might ignore you most of the time if you walk close to it, but that same bear isn't just going to let you start putting your hands on it any more than you'd allow a random stranger to get handsy with you. And should you happen to come between such a mother bear and her cub ... well, you might not survive the encounter. You can usually take your dog's food away without your dog putting up too much effort to defend it, but try that on a wolf and you might lose a hand.

Different animals think, behave, and communicate differently.

Members of social species will typically need company to feel happy, but solitary animals won't - and they may even feel crowded and invaded upon unless it's mating season. While a cat might come up to you for affection and show you affection in return by licking and headbutting you, a turtle won't - at most, it just won't feel afraid of being picked up and held. When a dog wags its tail, it means it's happy and excited, but when a cat's tail starts twitching, it's bothered and annoyed. Depending on the animal you're writing, you may want to do some research so you don't end up accidentally writing the wrong one.

So, in summary...

You might also be interested in:

Fantasy & Science Fiction Creature Development Questions
Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species
Common Werewolf Tropes You Should Think Twice Before Using
Animal & Non-Humanoid Generators

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