Adding an animal character to your novel

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog by Joanna Campbell Slan on incorporating an animal character into a novel. A mystery novel, one may assume, given that this post is at Kill Zone Blog, but it’s an interesting topic no matter the genre, right?

Writing an animal character is tricky. You don’t want to get too sappy, you don’t want to turn off non-pet people, and you shouldn’t rely on the animal to be a deus ex machina, a mystery that’s literally solved by God’s intervention.

All good points. Too sappy, too human, too artificial-robot-friend, there are many ways to go wrong. Looks like Slan based her animal character on a friend’s Golden, and used this particular dog’s obsession with carrying around stuffed toys to incorporate a dog into her plot:

Taken all together, those observations gave me a lot of good ideas. What if someone used a pet toy as a place to hide something of value? What if the toy as a sort of ersatz safe deposit box? That was the break-through idea that became the nucleus of my story.

So that’s all fine and good, but this post is really rather specific. It’s not about fitting an animal character into YOUR story; it’s about how Slan worked a particular dog into HER story. It’s not actually that hard to broaden the topic. In fact, let’s make it into a top-five list:

Top Five Points to Keep in Mind When Writing an Animal Character:

1) Animals are not humans in furry suits. Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise (say, the bull terrier is solving the murder mystery), an animal should behave in a moderately realistic way. It will add depth to your novel if your dogs behave like dogs, your foxes like foxes, your horses like horses, not like humans or like transportation robots (like a whole bunch of examples). Exceptions: if your horses are actually avatars of the gods, that’s different. Or robots, like Fes, for example.

2) Animals do not come pre-programmed by God to do what they’re told. The idea that dogs are easily trained to be perfectly obedient regardless of the distractions around them is ridiculous. I just detest fictional dogs — and worse, wolves — that are perfectly obedient. In fact, I dislike all Perfectly Obedient Robots in fantasy, whatever animal they are disguised as.

3) Animals are quirky. I like the ones that have personality, especially personalities that are not always convenient. I’m thinking of Dag’s horse Copperhead here.

4) If you’re writing anything contemporary, breed matters. Ilona Andrews does the best job with dogs of anyone I know of. They insert believable dogs of various interesting, less common breeds into their books. I really like that. If you’re writing secondary worlds, then inserting breeds that make sense in the region adds depth to your worldbuilding. Elizabeth Bear did a great job of this.

5) And sure, getting back to the linked post that started this whole thing, it can probably add verisimilitude to base your specific animal character on a real-world example, at least in some instances. My Lila, in the story of the same name, was based on my first Papillon.

One story that comes to mind where the animals were handled really well — and were not telepathically or otherwise subordinate to the human protagonist — is Catseye by Andre Norton.

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7 thoughts on “Adding an animal character to your novel”

  1. I’ve got two animal characters in a work in progress — but they both talk, so I’ve got a bit of leeway.

  2. In a remarkably good Tolkien fanfic “A Boy, A Girl, and a Dog” my Teen found on Ao3, Huan the wolfhound is prominent. Especially in Act 4, (it’s a written as a play of Beren & Luthien with Act 4 being incredibly long and set in the Halls of Mandos )but also in 2 & 3, and he is very very doggy.
    random example:
    “[she startles and looks down at the Hound, who is being a loyal canine friend and showing his emotional support in a traditional way by licking her foot]

    Oh! Huan, stop that, it’s disgusting even if you mean it kindly.

    [she scratches his ears]”

    Deb Coates does good animals. Even the eldritch abomination of a dog, Maker, is kinda doggy.

  3. I just finished a book called Dragon Seed and the best part about it was the really cranky mount he ends up with (they ride a type of dinosaur), which the story specifically points out was used to haze newbies for being so disagreeable. Cutthroat easily had more personality than half the secondary characters. The main character had to work hard to get her to do anything approaching what he wanted.

  4. Troublemaker by Linda Howard has the best dog portrayal ever. It’s not a fantasy novel but it’s a great book, specifically because the dog plays such an important role.

  5. Doranna Durgin sort of specializes in dog characters. (She too does dog shows.)

    And then there is “Best in Show”, where it is not clear who are the pets, and who are the animals being shown…

  6. Kathryn McConaughy

    Rowl in The Aeronaut’s Windlass is my favorite intelligent cat in fiction… such a perfect voice.

  7. Making many rapid notes about stories I must try. Cutthroat sounds especially neat, but all these sound great.

    Deb Coates does Barnhunt and I think perhaps tracking with her German Pinschers, so yes, her dogs come out well in fiction.

    Duranna Durgin for dogs and especially horses.

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