by Mary E. Lowd
Adapted from threads written on Twitter, May 2021
Let’s talk about the squishy edges of the genre of furry fiction.
Because a lot of people clearly have no idea what the genre is. And then, once we’ve talked about the squishy edges, let’s also talk about the heart. After that, we’ll take a brief tour through the most common sub-genres. Let’s get this whole question of the nature of furry fiction truly sorted out!
The first question I always get asked by people who’ve never heard of furry fiction before is, “What about lizards? Or fish?”
Now, those of us inside furry circles know that lizards and fish can definitely be furry. Because the word “furry” isn’t really about fur. When it comes to the fandom and genre, “furry” is really a shorter, catchier, much easier to spell, stand-in for “anthropomorphic.” If you’ve ever tried to spell “anthropomorphized” regularly, you’ll understand the desirability of a catchier, easier to spell word.
So, hell yeah, you can anthropomorphize lizards and fish. You can also anthropomorphize rose bushes, toasters, and if you’re watching Tuca and Bertie, apparently every single goddamn thing in the universe. (It’s an awesome, mind-bending show. Check it out.) If you walk around a furry convention, you’ll see amazing fursuits of all kinds. A lot of them are some variation on dogs, cats, or other popular animals, but also dragons, unicorns, gryphons, and sometimes weirder things like Pokemon or appliances. So, clearly, the definition of “furry” is a lot less limited than people often assume.
In fact, the definition of furry fiction is really very simple: it is fiction featuring anthropomorphic characters. This often gets simplified to “talking animals.” However, it’s not strictly necessary for the characters to talk or be animals, as long as they’re anthropomorphized.
In Watership Down by Richard Adams, perhaps the most archetypal example of a furry book, the rabbits talk to each other and other animals, but they clearly can’t talk to humans. This is a type of furry fiction called Secret Life of Animals, and we’ll discuss it more later. In contrast, Raptor Red by Robert T. Bakker follows a pair of Utahraptor sisters who can’t speak at all, not even to each other. However, the reader does get to see inside various dinosaurs’ minds during the book, hearing about their thoughts and feelings. Obviously, a couple of Utahraptors from 120 million years ago weren’t really thinking thoughts using English words. Their thinking is being anthropomorphized. That makes the book furry. (And also awesome.)
Now we get to the more confusing side of the squishiness about defining furry fiction… If the character being anthropomorphized doesn’t have to be an animal, how far does that stretch? What all might count?
Well, to anthropomorphize something — to make it more human-like — it does, by definition, have to start out as non-human, since a human is already completely human-like. But that’s a wide net. That’s… arguably… everything but humans.
So, The Brave Little Toaster? Yes, those appliances are non-human and are being given human-like traits. They’re being anthropomorphized. That’s pretty furry.
Toy Story? Yes, those toys — even the human-shaped ones — aren’t actually human. They’re lumps of plastic and cotton that are being invested with human-like lives when their little kid is looking away. And furthermore, a lot of them actually are animals, in addition to being toys: T-Rex, Slinky Dog, Hamm. That’s very possibly furry.
Furries argue about this more extreme application of the definition, but then that’s what people do, isn’t it? Argue about things? Sci-fi and fantasy readers argue about exactly where the line falls between those genres all the time. Is Star Wars science-fiction or is it really fantasy that just happens to be set in space?
In college, I had an epic argument with a friend about whether Tad William’s Otherland series is science-fiction (because it’s all about virtual reality) or fantasy (because the science is too hand-wavey to count). It was an infuriating argument, and I still have a really strong opinion on this question.
That doesn’t mean sci-fi and fantasy aren’t real genres.
Same for furry.
Just because you can argue about exactly where the border falls around a genre doesn’t deny that the genre exists. In fact, it kind of implies it. If people care enough about a genre to argue over which books fit in it, that generally means they care a lot about being able to find and read those kinds of books. They’re trying to define a space that describes the books that have traits they’ll enjoy reading.
Well, there are readers who actively prefer and seek out furry books and recognize those books when they read them. However, just because I can recognize a furry book when I read it doesn’t mean I want to spend all my time sifting through all the other genres to find the books I want, all mixed in, not at all organized.
I want furry books labelled as furry.
So, sure, not every book that has a cat show up briefly and say something pithy is furry. Sometimes the werewolf is just a monster, barely glimpsed during the darkness of night or the panic of an attack. Maybe that’s not very furry. As with everything related to art, there’s some degree of personal judgement and aesthetic choices involved. For me, I’m more likely to feel a story about a werewolf is furry if we spend time with the werewolf in wolf-form and they end up loving and embracing that form. Like most readers of furry fiction, I love animals, and so works of fiction that show a love for animals tend to resonate more for me.
If we want to look at some real edge cases of this paradigm, what about Naomi Kritzer’s CatNet novels? There are almost no animals in them. Yet they’re entirely about anthropomorphizing a computer program. That’s kinda furry. Sure, I wouldn’t actually label them furry. But they do have some of that feel — that sense of trying to imagine the humanity of something non-human.
Arguably, every android character ever written is furry, because androids are anthropomorphic machines. By this logic, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is furry. And, okay, yeah, I wouldn’t actually slap the furry label on Star Trek just for Data if I’m categorizing shows. But the Caitian doctor in Star Trek: Lower Decks? Hell yeah. The green bird, Migleemo, in the same show? Definitely. Basically, Stark Trek: Lower Decks in general is pretty appealing to a furry fan. And when you look at the heart of the genre of furry fiction, I do think there are reasons characters like Data and CatNet would specifically appeal to furry readers.
So it’s probably worth analyzing what does lay at the heart of furry fiction…
I’ve been pushing hard for a while now for people to recognize the word for fiction featuring anthropomorphic characters (e.g. talking animals) is “furry.” I don’t get much push back, mostly because the people who listen to me tend to already agree. Occasionally I run into some furry prejudice, but that’s usually pretty easy to handle. When people realize their problem with furry comes down to mere prejudice… they either come around or they were jerks who aren’t worth my time anyway.
I say it’s worth labeling furry fiction properly, because I want to find it more easily as a reader. But what is it that makes furry fiction as a genre worthwhile and unique? Why do I love furry fiction so much? The easy answer is that I love animals. But as an editor of furry fiction, I push for a more expansive definition of the genre than just “talking animals.” That’s why I don’t find “animal fantasy” to be as useful of a label as “furry.”
As the editor of Zooscape, I’ve published stories about sentient pinatas, statues, and even teardrops. I often bring up The Brave Little Toaster and Toy Story, as I’ve done here, because I love them and they feel kind of furry to me. But why?
Furry fiction is more than just animals.
As a writer, I’ve twice converted mainstream stories into furry stories. Each time, the story grew by a full third to accommodate the extra world-building. Those stories, though, functioned without the extra world-building. So was it necessary? What did it add?
When converting a story from mainstream to furry, a lot of extra words go to describing tails and ears, fur color and texture. Also the relationships between different species — what species are in the world? How do they relate?
Why do these things matter?
Ears, tails, fur, and relationships between species are all about embodiment and how the body you live in affects how you relate to the world and other people in it. They all fight the idea of a featureless avatar, relatable to anyone and everyone.
When I started writing, the rising wisdom was that you should describe a main character as little as possible, so every reader can project themself onto it. But the story your character lives through is determined by their body. This is unarguably true in reality, but it’s also true in fiction.
I like to see myself as a brain, trapped inside a badly designed box. I don’t want to identify with my body. Yet my white skin lets me walk through life with a whole host of privileges, while my red hair and skin sensitivity issues often severely limit my daily choices. When I write fictional characters, unless I put active thought into it, I’ll default to making assumptions about how their lives work, how their days go, and how others see them that are informed by either my own experiences or the experiences I’ve seen others have, either real or fictional.
You can try to write a featureless avatar anyone can project themselves into… But you’ll never lose all the little clues revealing the perspectives and biases of the character informed by the shape and structure of their body. The goal of removing all the details that make a character’s life specific to the body they inhabit is really about creating a default. And realistically, the default ends up being a white straight cis able-bodied male. Any deviation from those boxes gets erased. And that’s not great.
Furry fiction, however, has no desire to remove the embodiment of characters — it revels in details of swishing tails, flattening ears, problematic nutritional requirements, and widely varied sizes. There is no default.
There are too many different and exciting animals to choose from for there to ever be a default, featureless avatar in furry fiction. With each character — even humans, if included — the first question a reader asks is: what species am I reading about, so I can picture it?
Embodiment is key.
Furry fiction celebrates characters’ bodies, spending extra words where other fiction would cut those words for the sake of brevity. But those extra words matter. Acknowledging our bodies and our differences matters. From this angle, furry fiction suddenly becomes a genre specifically about embracing our differences and the peculiarities of how those differences form us.
This is why furry — as a fandom and genre — appeals so strongly to those who are queer and neurodiverse. It makes room for us. While the real world tries to shove us into boxes that don’t fit us, the world of furry fiction provides a plethora of boxes in all different shapes and sizes to try out and enjoy.
Now that we’ve talked about the squishy edges and the heart of furry fiction, let’s take a brief tour through some of the sub-genres.
During my time editing the furry short fiction markets ROAR and Zooscape, I’ve seen a lot of stories, both those I’ve published and those in the slush pile, many of which were also amazing. The reality of publishing is that you simply can’t publish every story that deserves it — there isn’t room for all of them in a single book or issue, and there probably isn’t enough money to pay for all of them either. (Remember this when you receive the inevitable rejections!)
So, as a slush reader, I’ve seen a lot more furry stories than I’ve been able to publish and share with the world, and I’ve seen trends and patterns in those stories. Furry fiction has definite sub-genres. Some of the sub-genres of furry fiction come from the fact that furry is a genre which can combine with pretty much every other genre in existence.
Furry fantasy? Obviously. Furry science-fiction? Love it. Furry romance? Huge fan base. Furry horror? Oh yeah.
This could go on forever.
I really think you’d be hard pressed to come up with a genre of fiction that can’t be combined with furry fiction. The cleverest suggestion I’ve seen for this is true crime. However, if you write a story from the point of view of Buzzwinkle, the Alaskan moose who got drunk from fermented crabapples and stole a string of decorative lights by getting them stuck in his antlers, then there you go. Furry true crime.
Basically, all you have to do is make the main character of any type of fiction an anthropomorphic animal, and there you go — another furry sub-genre is born.
Of course, some choices of secondary genre combine particularly well with furry — fantasy is already a genre where people don’t bat an eye at talking animals, and science-fiction loves to answer the question of where those talking animals came from. You can get some really charming results, though, by combining furry fiction with less obviously compatible secondary genres. For instance, the sports anthology, Claw Your Way to Victory, and the noir anthology, Inhuman Acts, are both delightful and really use the furry nature of their characters.
A lot of less intuitive genre combinations work by simply replacing human characters with animals without a lot (or sometimes any) explanation of WHY it’s happening. Think BoJack Horseman. There’s no explanation. It just is. And it’s fabulous. That’s okay. This sub-genre of furry fiction — where the world stays basically the same as usual but the characters are anthro animals — is often called “Fox In Starbucks.” As I understand it, this started with Kyell Gold’s novel Waterways, which actually has an early scene set in Starbucks with a fox. In Fox in Starbucks stories, sometimes humans have been entirely replaced, with no reference to them at all. Sometimes, the humans are unceremoniously mixed in with the animal characters, like in BoJack Horseman; though from what I’ve seen, that’s less common with written fiction than with comic books and animated shows.
The other end of the spectrum from Fox in Starbucks is Secret Life of Animals, which we touched on briefly before when I mentioned Watership Down. Instead of being anthropomorphized to the point of replacing humans, the animal characters in Secret Life of Animals stories continue to exist in their usual form, co-existing with humans, much like in real life. Secret Life of Animals is a sub-genre of furry that shows up a lot in middle grade fiction— Bunnicula, Charlotte’s Web, The Incredible Journey, Babe, Hank the Cowdog, etc. When Secret Life of Animals is written for adults, though, it can become a rich tapestry of the lives going on around us, just beneath our notice. The Bees by Laline Paull and Duncton Wood by William Horwood are both wonderful examples. They’re both low on fantasy elements, basically just digging into life inside a modern beehive in the former and underground mole tunnels in the latter. But they feel like epic fantasy, because the social structures are unfamiliar, rich, complex, and fascinating.
The degree of anthropomorphism in Secret Life of Animals can vary. In Bunnicula, the character of Harold the dog ostensibly wrote the books himself. Whereas in The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Enzo the dog never does anything a normal dog can’t do. Both are furry. Some of the more fringe examples of Secret Life of Animals might include The Brave Little Toaster and Toy Story, as I mentioned earlier. Neither is about animals, but they’re both about lives going on around humans, the secret lives that happen when we’re not looking.
Arguably, one of the cornerstones of furry fiction is an interest in the minds and lives of those who are different from us, those who we don’t always notice. Furry fiction is about expanding our frame of reference and paying attention to more of the world than we usually do.
We’ve talked about Secret Life of Animals, Fox in Starbucks, and how furry combines with basically any genre to create a furry sub-genre. But we should still touch on macro, transformation, and portal fantasy… I’m not as well-versed in the macro sub-genre, but I do know furry fiction is particularly well-suited to examining the societal and character effects of massive size differences. Think of the rodent section of Zootopia — adorable and fascinating.
There’s simply a lot to be done with size differences. Sure, you can erase those differences like in BoJack Horseman and just make everyone human-sized and shaped, but if you don’t? Mice and giraffes live on totally different scales, and there’s SO MUCH TO DO WITH THAT. A story looking at how a mouse and giraffe society intersect wouldn’t have to be science-fiction, but it intrinsically feels like a sci-fi concept. (I love sci-fi, so that’s a compliment.) It’s a very rich idea with lots of aspects to explore.
One of my favorite furry stories looking at size differences between animals is “Brush and Sniff” by mwalimu in ROAR 6. It’s about a wolf and squirrel, and how their societies prepared them to see each other, and how they end up seeing past that. In my Otters In Space series, I introduce a mouse main character in book 4 (upcoming from FurPlanet!), and suddenly, readers get to see the cats and dogs from books 1-3 as the giants they are to her, and see their world as the strange, forbidding place she finds it. The Kanti Cycle by Gre7g Luterman also takes a really in-depth look at what it’s like for mouse-sized aliens to live in a world run by gigantic lizards. There’s fascinating work to be done with size differences in furry fiction.
This brings us to transformation stories, probably the biggest sub-genre of furry.
Furry fiction is very interested in transformations, and some of that comes from the fundamentally embodied nature of furry fiction. But some just comes from the overlap between people interested in animals, and people interested in transforming into something other than human. The best piece of furry transformation fiction I’ve read is David D. Levine’s “I Hold My Father’s Paws,” an exceptional story.
What about werewolves, you ask? Werewolves are one of the most common forms of transformation fiction, prevalent in the fantasy genre. Well, just about anything centered on someone becoming a werewolf is not only furry fiction, but specifically the transformation sub-genre of furry fiction. Arguably, werewolves are a whole furry sub-genre unto themselves.
For that matter, a number of creature-types really kind of count as their own sub-genres of furry fiction:
—werewolf / shifter
If you’re reading a furry slush pile, you’ll see a lot of all of these. Also, fairy tales in general. You could easily make entire anthologies out of “The Three Little Pigs” re-imagined or “Little Red Riding Hood” from the wolf’s point of view. Sometimes fairy tale re-tellings are so excellent, they even make it into Zooscape, like Rachel Rodman’s amazing “Good, Better, Best”.
Furry fiction also combines really well with portal fantasy. So well, in fact, that furry portal fantasies often slide under the radar, and just get labeled as fantasy. Narnia, Oz, and Alice in Wonderland all involve humans going through a portal to a world of talking animals. Just this year, Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields— a centaur/hoofed-animal portal fantasy — was nominated for a Hugo. So, there’s a lot of furry portal fantasy out there, both classic and recent.
Now that we’ve talked through the squishy edges and the heart of furry fiction as well as some of the sub-genres, I hope you’ll see that furry fiction is not such a strange or rare thing. It’s just another genre of speculative fiction, and it’s actually very common. A lot of sci-fi and fantasy is unlabeled furry ficiton. A significant fraction of illustrated children’s books are furry; many cartoons are furry. But also, important works of literature like Animal Farm by George Orwell and Maus by Art Spiegelman are furry. Furry fiction is everywhere.
Most people will find — once they know what furry fiction is — that they’ve already seen or read a bunch of it. Quite likely, there’s already a piece of furry fiction that you love.