Writing Animals into your Story

On occasion, authors may choose to write animals into their stories. Animals can be valuable additions if done well. They can also detract from a story if an author isn’t careful.

I’m not talking about anthropomorphism in this post – the attribution of human characteristics to animals. Animals that bake cakes, sing show tunes, communicate by telepathy, shapeshift, form armies and conquer cities are more open to an author’s creative interpretation, and often human authenticity matters more than the animal traits.

I’m talking about your everyday animals (including imaginary creatures) that our characters share the world with and encounter in their daily lives and adventures.

There are times when writing animals into our stories isn’t an option. For example, many of my fantasy characters ride horses. Knowing something about horses – their abilities, needs, and personality quirks – is a requirement in order to bring a sense of reality to my books.

There are also times when we add animals for what they contribute to a story. I enjoy writing tales with animals and most of my books have at least one that plays a role larger than mere scenic backdrop. The larger the role the animal plays, the more the writer needs to attend to its needs, presence, and activities.

We might choose to add animals for a number of reasons:

  1. Animals add comic relief.
  2. Animals create tension or fear.
  3. A tough hero’s interaction with an animal can show a softer side.
  4. A villain’s love of an animal can add dimension.
  5. The maltreatment of an animal conveys a flaw.
  6. An animal can reinforce themes in the book.

In the Dragon Soul series, one of my favorite characters is Arful, a black mutt. Arful certainly adds comic relief, as well as moments of tenderness in a callous world.

For a time, Morgen watched the woman and her children, accepted into the familial circle in the sandy lane, invited in by Arful, the dog that ignored all social respectability and did away with any form of restraint.

Aedan ran in circles, chasing or chased by the dog, somewhat difficult to distinguish between the two. 

The Seabourne’s cantankerous first mate shows his “softer” side.

Tending the captain’s pet now, was all Treasach could think. What could possibly be next?

The dog ran up and down the deck, barking inanely at the men in the rigging as if they were crows nesting on the yards. It pushed its head between Treasach’s knees, nearly knocking him off his feet. If it hadn’t been so comical, and if he hadn’t some fondness for dogs, he would have tossed the beast overboard.

And most importantly, Arful contributes to the arc of the main character, Morgen, a sea captain who avoids responsibility and finds himself saddled with a dog. Responsibility for Arful leads to responsibility for a family, a people, and ultimately to a decision to risk his life for the archipelago in which he lives.

With a frown, he threw a stick for Arful who bounded after it, overshot it, and got his legs tangled in a flailing turn. Morgen had never encountered a more uncoordinated dog. The thought that he collected misfits and lost souls rankled him, and he walked behind the house to sit on the seawall and stew.

Writing animals into a story comes with challenges that a writer has to keep an eye on. A few tips:

1. Know or learn the natural behavior of the animal. Most of us have experience with dogs, but we may have to do some research on wolves, elephants, or goats. You can’t beat hands-on experience.

2. Remember that domesticated animals need to be cared for. Your character can’t just leave without making arrangements. If your characters go on an adventure with an animal, consider how the animal is provided for and how it manages the obstacles along the way. Writing the details isn’t necessary, but knowing them is.

3. Be careful not to let the animal become a distraction that slows down your story. Weigh the benefits against the “intermissions” in your pacing.

4. Remember that the animal, like any secondary character, has to have reasons to be in the story. The more reasons, the better.

5. Avoid stereotypes and cliches – give your important animals authentic personalities and quirks.

Animals in stories can be wonderful additions. When well integrated, they can be amusing, reveal the character of your protagonist or villain, and augment the themes of your story and advance the plot.

Do you write animals into your stories? Have you had to research animal traits and care?

44 thoughts on “Writing Animals into your Story

  1. Erik says:

    It’s really awful when people include animals in their writing without having done due diligence in the research phase!

    One of the most striking yet subtle uses of animals in writing is Flannery O’Connor’s use of the cat and the monkey in the 1953 short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” We get irony, foreshadowing, symbolism, causality/reversal – and neither animal takes up even four sentences!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like Flannery O’Connor, but haven’t read that story. When it’s done well, animals can bring layers to a story. And you’re right, authors have to know something about what they’re writing, or it can pop a knowledgable reader out of the narrative.


  2. Jed Jurchenko says:

    Thanks Diana, I’m enjoying these insights into fiction. I beginning to understand that the stories I love, are so much more than simply a good book. Ton’s of reach, and detail are put into these carefully, crafted works. And who knows, I may try my hand a fiction yet 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Kev says:

    Excellent article Diana… great tips! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. olganm says:

    Great post! I have included an animal in one of my books at the suggestion of another writer and I loved it!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Good piece, Diana. This is an area writing advice often doesn’t touch on. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Love this post! That’s why I included them in my zombie story! You know how many people don’t think about zombie animals? It’s crazy I tell you, crazy!
    And another called Ogden featured a detective with 2 dogs. Those 2 had some of the most chest pumping scenes I’ve read in a book.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Annika Perry says:

    Diana, I already adore Artful and thoroughly enjoyed reading the scenes you included featuring him. Definitely an asset to the story I can tell. I had never particularly thought of including animals in m stories but might give it a go – but without letting them slow it down in any way. Don’t know why I hadn’t considers this before, especially since so many books have great animals in them, the last one being Hamlet the pig in ‘What Milo Saw’, both for comic relief and supporting the theme of the book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is fun to consider. They can be side-kicks or simply another detail in your character’s life that you touch on here and there. My aunt had a parrot who used to scream, “Tante Tina, Look at me! Look at me!” I always thought that would be a fun bit in the background of a character’s life. 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  8. These are great dog pictures! Is this your dog?

    It must have been great fun for you to get to imagine the habits and needs of the dragons in your stories. Did you have any known creature in the back of your mind when you were writing about them?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not my dog, Jane. Though what a typical lab – he’s adorable. I based the little dragon in Myths of the Mirror mostly on my Siamese cat with a little orneriness mixed in for fun. To me, the larger dragons are metaphors for spirit or the bridges to grace, therefore they have much less obtrusive personalities. All the other animals in my books are based on real animals – who happen to be characters!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Rajagopal says:

    Informative and instructive tips on weaving animal element into stories, Diana. I have yet not tried my hands on short stories or novellas but have read quite a few animal stories, including allegories, like the Orwellian classic ‘Animal Farm’, where animals impersonate real-life human figures. The key in featuring animals certainly lies in knowledge of their traits. Integrated well, they bring in, as rightly pointed out by you, that extra dimension to the narrative…best wishes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for visiting and commenting, Raj. There are so many ways to go when integrating animals into stories. I haven’t tried the route of giving animals human characteristics, but who knows what the future will bring. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  10. balroop2013 says:

    This reminded me of Alice in wonderland, which became popular as a book for children but when I read it with an adult’s discerning eye, all the animals spoke a subtle language…with so much of mature messages.

    Yes, animals do add a special charm to a story. Another one that comes to my mind is Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger, a short story by Saki (H.H.Munro) in which the animal adds more humour to the story than the ladies who are trying to outshine each other.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I haven’t really written any animals into stories, at least not animals that weren’t humans suffering from a spell.
    I’ve always wanted to though, maybe someday I will add an animal to one of my stories.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s pretty easy unless you intend to make them a full-time participant in the story. That requires a little more planning. I haven’t done what you describe…perhaps I’ll try that someday 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m sure it would take a lot of planning, just the logistics of trying to write an adventure with an animal playing a key part is hard to fathom. I’m sure some people can do it, but it’s too much for me right now.
        It’s a lot simpler with humans being under a spell or curse, they can still (somewhat) act like normal, depending on what kind of animal and what they are trying to do. It can be fun to write sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Cute dog! The tips are so nice! Wonderful post!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Carrie Rubin says:

    I’ve not written animals into my books, none that were pets of my characters, anyway. I’m not sure why. Sounds like a wonderful tool to use as characterization. Maybe it’s because in two of my three books, the main character is a single, medical trainee who wouldn’t have time for a pet. But hmm, now you’ve got me thinking. I’ll have to give it a go the next time around. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s something to toy with, Carrie. Some animals require less daily care, especially if there’s a neighbor who will fill the food dish. In the Sorcerer’s Garden, Madlyn has a goofy cat named Crash. Crash doesn’t play a major role but now and then adds another element of quirky humor to the story. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        I’m reading Sue Grafton’s “X” now, and her neighbor has a cat that definitely adds a fun element to the story.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Erik says:

        I felt that Crash added more than comic relief, including character development (illustrating Madlyn’s single life, the feeling of loss after the break-up, etc.).

        Liked by 1 person

        • So nice of you to say. I definitely intended Crash to be a reflection of Madlyn’s “crashing” life. Also, people who have pets can’t be all that bad – they know how to love. And Crash is quirky enough to be another aspect of her quirky life. All subtle, but considerations in adding the character. Thanks Erik for noticing!

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Irena S. says:

    I love when there are animals as characters in the books. They are a part of our real lives, so they should also be part of the ficitonal ones as well. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think so too, Irena. They just require vigilance. I can’t tell you how many times I had to ask myself, “Now where’s the dog during all this?” Occasionally, I farmed him off to the young family in the snippet, because he would have complicated the action. Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Love the pics of your pooch! I love reading about fun pets in stories, and you’re right, they can add so much, either as characters themselves, or as spotlights on facets of the main characters. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series gained major comic relief when she added Bob, the golden retriever who eats anything, then horks it up at the most inconvenient times later. Stephanie also has her pet hamster, Rex. Christine DeSmet had a great sidekick in her Door County series with Lucky Harbor, the dog who loves chocolate, but gets goldfish crackers instead as treats. My absolute favorite pets in stories, though, have to be Harry Dresden’s pets, Mister and Mouse. So love them, especially Mouse!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wish he was my pooch, Julie! We are golden retriever mutt fans, but I’ve always loved labs too. Thanks for all the “pet” references – makes me want to read those books. 🙂 They really can spice up a story when those quirky details are added in.

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