Writing Animals into your Story

dog7On 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.

dog6For 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.

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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.

dog2With 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?