Readers love animals. Some authors report that they get more fan mail about the hero’s dog than about the hero, and several publishers have told me that novel series sell best if they have a recurring animal character.
Could you include an animal in your story? Maybe the main character (MC) could have a canine or feline sidekick. Perhaps the MC’s love interest is devoted to her horse, or the villain has a close bond with his dog.
If possible, choose the kind of animal of which you have personal experience. Do you have a cat, a dog, a snake, a raven? Then you can write about it with authenticity. If you get it right, animal lovers will smile in recognition.
If you need to research an animal, opt for an unusual pet – how about a goat, a donkey, a fox? Talk to owners and try to get some hands-on experience.
Make the animal realistic, otherwise your readers will write scathing reviews and letters of complaint. The dog should behave like a dog, the cat like a cat, and the camel like a camel. Consider the animal’s natural skills and weaknesses. Use them for realism and to drive parts of the plot.
Let’s take a cat, for example. Cats can jump from great heights without getting hurt, and have excellent eyesight even when there’s little light. However, they have relatively few taste buds and don’t see colours well. In your story, the cat may leap from the third storey when the human MC can’t, and find an escape route in the darkness of the night. But the plot had better not hinge on the cat detecting a flavour difference between two ice creams, or picking the correct nuance of green.
If the animal in your story has skills not common to the species, keep them realistic. Check that it’s something the animal can physically do. Perhaps Tommy the Cat is able to open doors by pressing the handle down – a rare but occasionally heard-of skill. However, he won’t be able to insert and turn a key because for that he would need opposable thumbs.
In its natural habitat, is the animal a predator or prey? This will affect its behaviour in the plot. A cat is a predator, so it may stalk, pounce and attack, and only occasionally hide under the couch for safety. A rabbit, on the other hand, will always flee.
Daily and seasonal rhythms affect the animal’s behaviour. Bears hibernate in winter, and you can use the bear coming out of winter sleep as part of the plot. Cats sleep around seventeen hours daily, and are often awake at night when their human snores. Perhaps the cat becomes aware of a night time intruder or a fire in the building and alerts the sleeping human just in time. Dawn and dusk are the times when cats’ hunting instincts are strongest, and you may be able to build this into the plot.
Many animals’ behaviour is triggered by temperature, and they may become sluggish on cold winter days or during the noon heat. Some reptiles are inactive and stiff while it’s cold, but suddenly come to life when it gets warm – an effect you may be able to use in your story.
Every kind of animal has different senses. Many rely on their sense of smell to a much greater extent than humans do, and their behaviour needs to reflect this. Some can hear far better than we do, perceive a wider spectrum of colours, or distinguish between flavours of which we are not aware. Some animals are equipped with additional senses, for example, a homing pigeon’s ability to know in which direction to fly.
What does the animal fear? This can create interesting plot complications. Most animals fear fire, though they can overcome their dread if there’s a compelling motivation, such as a tasty human sitting by the campfire. The majority of cats will run from water – but some enjoy bathing and swimming. Elephants flee from sudden noise.
When writing a Thriller, Horror or Adventure story, consider how the animal will react to the smell of blood. A lion will be attracted, a horse terrified.
Make the animal typical of its species – but at the same time, present it as an individual character. This is best achieved by blending ‘normal’ behaviour with quirks. A cat character, for example, may be fond of sleeping in cardboard boxes, lying on keyboards when the human wants to type, playing with ribbons and eating fish – many felines do, and cat lovers will smile in recognition. At the same time, your fictional cat needs individual quirks: maybe Tommy the Cat loves to drink coffee and adores the smell of female human feet, which can lead to funny situations when he sips from visitors’ cups and sniffs ecstatically at their open-toe sandals.
A big question to consider is how much to anthropomorphise the animal, that is, give it human attitudes. My advice: anthropomorphise as little as possible, and as much as the story needs. An animal that appears to think and reason like a human evokes smiles and laughter – but this works better for internet memes than for fiction characters. In a novel, it’s usually best if the animal thinks, feels and behaves in keeping with its species.
In fantasy fiction, the animal can have a human attribute or paranormal ability, but it’s best to stick to just one. Fantasy readers are willing to suspend their disbelief if Tommy the Cat can talk human, but they won’t believe it if he also cooks breakfast and solves crosswords.
In Storm Dancer, I tried to give Dahoud an equine sidekick, but soon realised that I simply didn’t know enough about horses to pull this off. Although I sought advice from horse experts, Dahoud’s silver mare just didn’t develop into a fully fleshed-out, believable major character. I kept her in the book, but as a minor character only.
Since adopting a cat from the shelter, I’ve written about many feline characters
Sulu is a remarkable cat, sweet-natured and highly intelligent. He takes a keen interest in my writing, usually snuggling on the desk between my arms as I type, watching my fingers dance across the keyboard. I’ve trained him to perform little circus tricks and to pose for photos. When I say ‘Sulu, read’ he lies down by the open book, places a paw on the page, and looks as if he’s reading. When I say ‘Sulu, scratch’ he walks to the scratching post and scratches.
With a smart, cooperative cat like Sulu, I have a constant source of inspiration, and I can observe first-hand how a cat character would act. This is so much easier – and more believable – than my clueless attempts to write about horses
Could your MC have a pet? If yes, what kind? If not, might another major characters have one? How could this animal contribute to the plot?