Many people who grew up in the 90s (at least in the us) were exposed to animated anthropomorphic (human like) animals in their entertainment. Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Animaniacs etc. Since some of the earliest forms of successful animation involved such characters, it became a staple of animation in general. Most children’s programming featured animal characters, with traits of human physiology and behaviour.
I myself fit into this demographic.
Virtually everyone grows up, attempting to iterate on something they were invested in as a child. No surprise then, that in the modern age there are many among us who enjoy non human character designs. But why bother? Wouldn’t people be easier to relate to than anything non human?
Well, not necessarily. When you imbue non human subjects with human traits (particularly social traits) the human traits contrast hard and stand out. Couple that with people naturally wanting to put human characteristics on everything from their vehicles to the weather patterns and it’s no wonder this content exists. Put simply, the fact that rabbits don’t talk or have forward facing eyes, in no way impedes a child’s ability to enjoy Zootopia.
So what does this have to do with character design? Well in virtually any industry, especially entertainment, attention is money. If you know your audience already accepts that talking animals can be characters, it’s an easy way to stand out.
If you make a late twenties, early thirties, fit, tough, snarky man as your protagonist you must deal with the competition and expectations of that archetype. Will he be as snarky as Nathan Drake? Will he be as tough as Bruce Willis? Will he be as fit as Arnold Schwarzenegger? Probably not.
However the standards suddenly change if you are putting forward a talking dog. Suddenly people don’t know what to expect, except what the surrounding media has told them. Maybe its a police dog whom only the audience can hear, or maybe its a stuffed dog protecting a sleeping child from nightmares. They don’t know and are now forced to either move on, or continue giving their attention until they have some idea of what this character is all about.
It’s also worth noting that creating a human design people have not seen before is virtually impossible, while unique humanoids are fairly easy.
The adults among us who more often choose to learn instead of moving on, get ideas about what the creator did right or wrong, in terms of that character. As creative types often do, we create our own version and the cycle of creative influence begins again.
Currently humanoid non humans tend to find common niches in children’s programming as they always have, with fringe creators looking for further niches to exploit anthro designs. I use them in my work in the hopes, that serious looking character types break the mould just enough to get someone to stop at my vendor booth and ask “what is this?”. It seems to work fairly well.
Sadly it’s not all cartoons and bunny girls. There is an active community, and stigma surrounding humanoid characters that are based on animals. I don’t know the community so I won’t comment on it, but the stigma is something that affected my business.
My first project as a game developer featured a full roster of humanoid characters. It wasn’t long at sale before I noticed a small but consistent number people greeting me with “Oh! I’m a furry too!” or “No thanks. I hate furries.” This was confusing to say the least. “What is a furry?” I would ask after finally submitting tact to curiosity. “It’s a person who likes anthros.” Was the typical response from anyone whoever mentioned them.
What I didn’t understand until later was that “like” could very easily mean “is sexually attracted to”. This was my published game, garnering a sexual reputation. A game that targeted young people. (The merit of sexy humanoids isn’t the topic.)
I never received any parental complaints because, frankly there was no sexual material in this game. Nevertheless, the stigma stuck. Every one of the tiny number of reviewers that was kind enough to give me time, always mentioned that mine was a “furry” game.
This didn’t kill my sales horribly (at least I don’t think so) and was certainly eye opening. If you intend to publish humanoid characters, especially based on animals, know that your work will be associated with similar sexualised material.
I still find the advantages of using humanoid characters beneficial. Thankfully the public at large still doesn’t know what a “furry” is and so the stigma is limited in its effect. Once again let me reiterate that I make no claims towards the actual people that call themselves “furries”. Only that there is a stigma for humanoids that have an even vaguely human shape.