Saturday, May 15, 2010

Our Characters and Their Pets

Pets are an integral part of the lives of many real life humans. We should consider giving some to our characters. Let your novel's shopkeeper have an old orange tabby cat. Maybe the college student keeps a fish tank. Allow your ex convict to tell his troubles to a beagle/terrier mix named Missy B.

Pets can liven up a scene with little dialogue or show the humanity (or lack of) in a character. Remember how we all felt looking at poor Max after the Grinch tied the horn on his head and forced him to pull that heavy sleigh?



In movies if a guy shoots his enemy's dog, we know he's the villain. That's a cheap trick, but it works. As soon as a character's cruel to an animal, we hate him.

But even a gruff bank robber who just shot the teller can gain at least a bit of our sympathy if he feeds a stray cat or dog. If the animal has an injury, like a hurt paw the robber has to wrap up, so much the better. But as I said, it's a cheap trick. In a movie, the audience will be all, "awwwww," but a novel reader will probably smirk a bit and expect a bit more to sway her toward the robber's side. But the "poor animal" is still a good tool for a novelist to keep in the old writing tool box for that added touch.

Animals can symbolize something about their human companions. Think of Gandalf 's horse, Shadowfax- truly the lord of all horses. He was too wild to be tamed, faster than wind, and good, loyal, and wise. However, at no time did he appear as anything other than a horse. In other words, their relationship never became silly.

Our characters can be close to their animals, provided it doesn't become overly cutesy. Unless of course you're doing so on purpose. That could be quite humorous, actually, if done well. As a kid, I enjoyed Mr. Ed reruns.

Animals can serve as symbols, props, and minor characters all at once. Let's look at Harry Potter's owl, Hedwig- (named after the patron saint of orphans, by the way).


She serves to link him to the magical world while in Privet Drive. Sometimes she carries letters to his magical friends, but most of the time she's caged- symbolizing his own entrapment. For the writer, she helps set the scene and/or mood- Harry can voice his thoughts, telling her he's sorry he can't let her out. Sometimes we're told how dirty her cage is. She'll pace on her perch. Clap her beak in annoyance like a white feathered (haired) old grandma type making *tsk tsk* noises.

In Deathly Hallows, her death seems to be part of Harry's rite of passage into adulthood. He's no longer the little orphan boy. He's leaving his aunt's house for the last time. Leaving her protection. Leaving the protection of the patron of orphans.

All of that with just a little snowy owl who doesn't even talk.

But most of our characters' pets will be your average cat or dog with the occasional bird or fish tossed in. Don't forget to feed them, give them water, and interact with them. They'll bark at the door (well, the dogs will) and they'll respond to other characters. I think the biggest mistake we can make is to stick a pet in a scene and then forget about it for the rest of the scene or the rest of the book. Don't annoy the reader with the little beast, but a doggy loving reader will remember Jane had a poodle and will wonder why little fluffy was never mentioned again after chapter one.

13 comments:

Missantrhopics said...

I'm such a sucker for animals in books and films. Often I have more sympathy for the animals than the characters. Animals are imbued with innocence due so anything done to them always seems so much crueler.

Reminds me of Silence of the Lambs. When the girl is trapped at the bottom of the hole with the killers pet poodle. Now that was a great dichotomy of morals, when she threatened the serial killer with his own dog.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

I know what you mean about the animals.

I'm probably the only one of the planet who hasn't seen Silence of the Lambs. So, does she kill the dog? Or are you going to make to see the movie to find out? ;)

karabu said...

I agree!
Beyond Hedwig, Hagrid's character is all about his relationships with his creatures. And I know I went from dislike to hate when the Malfoys worked so hard to get Buckbeak killed. Then there's the whole Crookshanks thing. . . no wonder I love Harry Potter. Full of critters.
Yea animals!
(I have livestock and alien animals in my novel. Off to add some pets!)

Amanda Borenstadt said...

@Kara~ Oh, yeah, I couldn't have done an entire post on animals in Harry Potter. It was hard to contain myself. :)

Yay, more pets! I'm working on a story with a character who has a pet coyote. So, of course I then get to research coyotes.

SAMUEL PARK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda Borenstadt said...

Thanks Samuel! :D

Medeia Sharif said...

I once read a series in which pets weren't introduced until a later time, and I felt that I learned more about the character through the way she interacted with them.

Lisa Rusczyk said...

I never thought about Hedwig that way. Neat analysis!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Thanks Lisa. :)

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Medeia, interesting. Hmm, Makes me want to add critters into my stories that have none just to see what I can find out about my own characters.

Aubrie said...

I love pets! I have two dogs and about 100 fish (guppy babies everywhere!)

You can tell a lot about a character through how they interact with their pets. Great post! Nice to meet you (I found you through Lisa R's blog)

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Welcome, Aubrie! :)

We had guppies when I was a kid. They multiply like crazy. I love them!

I'm so glad you found my blog. :)

Nishant said...

I never thought about Hedwig that way. Neat analysis!
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