Animism generally refers to the belief in spirits or souls, whether of humans, animals, or objects such as land features. It is often presented as part of the author's cultural heritage, but can also be used in other contexts, such as to give an air of fantasy to a story or to make some particular moral or philosophical claim. Typically, animism is the belief of actual modern or historical people groups, but in literature nearly any reference to souls can be considered animistic.
Many popular works of animistic fiction are based on the author's cultural heritage. One aim of such literature is to expose that culture's beliefs to a wider audience. An example of this is Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. The novel traces the changes in the characters and in the animistic Ibo culture of Nigera as a result of interaction with Europeans. Animism in Things Fall Apart introduced many Western readers to the complications inherent in African cross-cultural interactions.
Animism may also form a part of a character's self-discovery, as in Rudolfo Anayo's Bless Me, Ultima, a coming-of-age story that explores connections between Catholicism and Native American mystical beliefs in Chicano culture. In Bless Me, Ultima, mysticism represents a rich way of life free from simplistic answers or moral platitudes.
In other instances, literature involving animism may not draw on the author's background, but still use the beliefs of an actual people group. Given animism's frequent emphasis on the souls or spirits of natural features, this point sometimes has environmental or conservationist overtones. These works may emphasize modernity's destructiveness in contrast to the beauty of living in harmony with nature. One example of this is Michael Blake's novel Dances With Wolves, which he later adapted into a screenplay for the movie of the same name.
Many works of fantasy or fable, in some respects, can also be considered animistic. The existence of ghosts, for instance, presupposes some sort of soul or spirit. Some works of magic realism fall into this category. In fables as well, animals are given human characteristics that sometimes border on spiritual, but may also be simply anthropomorphic. The term anthropomorphism is a figure of speech in which the author figuratively attributes human characteristics to a non-human creature. Within the context of the story, an anthropomorphized object is not actually considered spiritual.