Home > World-Building > Day One Hundred and Ninety-five: The Lion of Milford and The Other

Day One Hundred and Ninety-five: The Lion of Milford and The Other

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!


Well, yesterday went well with a bit of character analysis, so why not see if we can do it again? Once again, we turn to the fine people over at random.org for a random character, which gives me…

Long Walker, from the story of the same name. Okay then, randomness. Well played.

This story actually came about as a kind of request from my sister, the Lovely and Talented Chion Wolf. In the summer of 2011, a car in Milford, CT hit a mountain lion and killed it. This caused quite a stir, as wild mountain lions hadn’t been seen in Connecticut for ages and there was something of a controversy as to whether or not they had returned. For years, people have sworn up and down that they saw mountain lions, but the government was keeping it hushed up. In my time back home, I never heard a convincing explanation as to why the state would treat the existence of mountain lions as though they were crashed aliens from the planet Betelgeuse 5, and I fled the country before I too could succumb to the madness.

In any case, it turned out the story was just as weird as if it had been native to Connecticut: the mountain lion, a young male, had walked to the state from South Dakota.

So the big question on everyone’s mind was this: WHY? Why on earth would this cat walk this far? Of course, no one knew, but my sister wanted the story to somehow be happy. That this was really what the mountain lion wanted. So I took it upon myself to see if I could come up with a reason, and wrote Long Walker.

There is, of course, a certain amount of peril that goes with writing from an animal point of view. When done badly, it’s saccharine and schmaltzy. When done well, it’s Richard Adams, and I would never want to tread on his turf. But the key to doing an animal story is to try and see the world through the animal’s eyes, and to try and figure out how it might interpret the human world. It’s tough, because I am human and my readers are human, so we expect to see the world described in human terms.

Regardless, I think I did a decent job with it. So let’s see what we know about Long Walker from the story:

  • He is, of course, a mountain lion. Puma concolor. Mainly found in the western part of the United States, except for the occasional maniac who strolls off to the Atlantic.
  • He went out of his pack’s home grounds to explore the human world for a while. Unfortunately, humans don’t like mountain lions hanging out on their turf, so they attracted a hunting party. The hunters tracked them down and shot as many as they could.
  • The only survivors were Long Walker (who hadn’t really lived up to that name yet) and an elder of the group.
  • The elder decided that Long Walker was cursed, and that there was really only one option open to him: spread the curse around. Walk through the lands of “the people of stone and death” and spread the curse through those lands. When he dies, the curse will activate, and will destroy the People of Stone and Death.
  • The only way for Long Walker to be free is either to die, or to wash himself in the waters of the Atlantic.

The rest of the story went pretty much as the news story went – he got close to the ocean, and was hit by a car. This means, of course, that it is unlikely I’ll ever write him again.

Still, it was a good experience in writing a non-human protagonist, and I learned a few things that seemed to work:

The animal only knows what it can know. Yes, that’s a redundant tautology [1], but that’s only because there’s no other good way to put it. You have to look at the world that humans have built and try to figure out what kind of frame of reference an animal would have. Assuming a fictionally-smart animal, it might be able to deduce certain facts about humans, given enough time, but the mountain lions in this story didn’t really have that kind of time. So roads became rivers of black stone, our lands became foul-smelling wastelands, and our ever-present cars were the great beasts of the black stone rivers that traveled faster than any great cat could run. It was all about comparisons.

There were two things I really liked about the lion POV. The first was how they think of us: The People of Stone and Death. The animals don’t know what concrete or asphalt or metal are, so they just assume they’re different kinds of stone. And we lay our stone everywhere we go. With it, of course, we bring death, and lots of it. The other thing I liked was describing the ocean from the point of view of a creature who didn’t even understand the concept of salt water. The elder had heard of it, of course, but all he knew was that it was water you cannot drink, which sounds like madness. Later, as Long Walker reaches the coast, he smells it and decides it smells like blood. Of course, it is as he gets closer to the “bloodwater” that he is killed. Symbolic? Sure. Why not.

As a writing exercise, it’s a real challenge and it stretched my imagination. If you want to try, go ahead: pick something familiar to you, and describe it from the point of view of someone who’s not only never seen one before, but who doesn’t understand its fundamental purpose. Like a person who doesn’t understand the concept of using mechanical transportation trying to describe a freight train.

Another thing that I think made this work: Sense what the animal senses. The use of more than just hearing and sight is something that a lot of authors have to consciously remind themselves to do. Or at least I do, because we Puny Humans tend to focus on those two senses. Animals, of course, have to pay more attention to things like smell and taste, and I tried to include those elements as part of Long Walker’s understanding of his world.

One more thing: Try not to make the animal into a human. I love my cat. Cooper is the most awesome cat in Creation, and I have the data to back that up. [2] And as much as I like to think of Cooper as a little hairy person, he is not one. He is a cat. He understands the world the way a cat understands it, not as a human does, and it would be a mistake for me to endow him with human emotions and motivations. If I do that, he will slowly drive me mad, because only a truly evil person would try to wake me up that early in the morning.

The same applies to an animal in fiction, but with a catch: it has to be human enough that the reader can empathize, but inhuman enough that it seems authentic. Richard Adams did this wonderfully. In Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, he researched the behavior of rabbits and dogs to try to make their behavior and world-view look like we expect it to look from those animals, while making them human enough that you want to see them succeed and get what they want. Or, in the case of The Plague Dogs, to make you dissolve into a blubbery lump of tears.

The bigest point, of course, is that Long Walker implies the existence of intelligent animals in this universe. I decided to place this story in Earth Prime, which means that it shares a world with most of the other stories that I’ve written. So, in the world that includes metahumans and dark gods and mad science, there are also animals that can speak to each other and who understand concepts like revenge and redemption. Is this a rare trait, something that is only found in small populations? Or is it true for all animals in this world? Are Racer and Rocky and Nickel as intelligent as Long Walker? If so, what is their perspective on the events that they see play out around them? I haven’t really decided that yet, partly because it would open up a whole new vista of perspective that I’m not sure I’m ready to take advantage of just yet.

There is a big challenge in writing The Other, and writers have a hard enough time when The Other is another human being. Writing an animal is even more difficult because we are incapable of truly understanding how they see the world. We can analogize it to human understanding, we can study behavior and wrap it in human concepts and vocabulary, but not even Cesar Millan can understand what it means to be a dog.

If I were to re-write this story, I would do more research into the behavior of mountain lions, especially their habitats and their regular way of life. This story relies on a few things that I pulled out of thin air: that mountain lions live in groups, that this particular group lived near enough to humans that the local People of Stone and Death considered them to be a threat, and that there is such a thing as an “elder” mountain lion. I honestly don’t know if any of those three things hold up, and they would be good to know. Even if I were to re-write it, though, it probably wouldn’t be that much longer. Following a non-human protagonist on a solo journey of 1,500 miles is a challenge I don’t think I’m up to yet.

To wrap up: it was one of the few stories I wrote while I was on vacation in the States, and I really like how it turned out. So, many thanks, Dear Sister, for the inspiration!


[1] And one more for the bonus!
[2] Data available upon request. Submit two copies of your driver’s license, passport, and highest-limit credit card (with security code and mother’s maiden name) and wait six to eight weeks. If there is a full moon at any time during the waiting period, the delivery of the data (which will only be sent encoded onto computer punch cards) may be delayed significantly, as our drivers are prone to werewolfism.

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