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.