Thursday, August 11, 2011

WRITING ANIMAL CHARACTERS

Current Project: Proposals
Status: Moving Along Again (at last)
Okay, I admit it; I’m a sucker for animals. Growing up in suburbia, we always had pets: dogs, cats, a cottontail rabbit, parakeets, guppies, horned toads, turtles, a duck, ground squirrels, coconut crabs, and for one glorious day, a turkey named Jim that my father won in a contest.


I was the kid who read all the books in the school library that were written from the animal’s point of view, the ones that described the life of a beaver or an owlet from birth to independence (and sometimes on to parenthood.) As a young teen, I wanted to be a wildlife biologist. And the first book I wrote was a non-fiction children’s book about osprey (fish hawks.)

Not surprisingly, animal characters appear in my stories. If you haven’t written an animal character who is more than a walk-on, give the idea some careful consideration. Statistically speaking, most readers own or have owned pets. Pets and their owners are easy for readers to relate to, care about and to root for.  


Writing animal characters is more than a gimmick. Remember the Lassie books? Or The Cat Who… mysteries? The books Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein have been on the bestseller lists for ages. In both books, animals are major characters. In the second book, Enzo is the narrator.

In my books, most animals are true secondary characters who serve important roles: mentor, foil, mirror, scene antagonist, catalyst, ally, family, window into hero/heroine/villain’s character. My animal characters’ actions affect the plot as well as the tone of a story (often providing comic relief.)

A word of caution: do your research, and remember that animal characters have instincts as well as GMCs. If your animal’s behavior is atypical for the species/breed, you’d better have a convincing explanation woven into your story. Do you write animal characters? Do you like to read about them?

13 comments:

Judith Ashley said...

Hi Sarah,

So far, the animals in my stories aren't real - they are spiritual energy - however, what you say is true...I must have the energy relevant and realistic to what people know of the animal.

Love the photo of the Osprey. One of my favorite places to drive is just past Multnomah Falls where an Osprey nest is situated on one of the beacons. Love seeing the baby heads and then the fledglings and of course Mama and Papa Osprey doing their thing.

Sarah Raplee said...

Thanks for stopping by, Judith. Animals as spiritual energy - you've hooked me for sure!

I helped raise osprey chicks in Iowa in the osprey reintroduction program. It was awesome! I'll look for the next on the beason - thanks for the tip.

Alice Sharpe said...

Hi Sarah -- I like using animals in my books, too. They get to be a little bit of a responsibility as when the action gets going, you still have to remember where the dog or cat or horse is. You have to feed them and give them something worthwhile to do. Sounds an awful lot like real pets, doesn't it?

My favorite (of my own) animals in a book was a Silhouette I wrote several years ago where one major POV character was a dog. I chose my mother's terrier as my own lab at the time was a little sweet natured to come across as manipulative as I needed, but that dog did end up acting as a mentor, a confidante, a catalyst, a mirror and just about everything else you said. And writing first person in her POV was the most fun I ever had writing anything, ever.

Thanks for the neat blog.

Paty Jager said...

Fun post, Sarah!

Well yes, I've had animals in my stories. Dogs in the two contemporary books as well as a horse in one of them. They weren't major secondary characters but they helped to show the main characters feelings.

And then there's the spirit trilogy which has the heroes and heroine who are animals/bird have the time. They were fun. I actually read a book on wolves, elk and watched OPB shows on Eagles to help me portray them when they were animals.

And Alice's book with the dog is really good. ;)

Sarah Raplee said...

Alice, is your Silhouette with the dog available anywhere? I'd love to read it!

Alice Sharpe said...

Thanks for asking Sarah. I looked on Amazon and saw that there are 32 copies available for .01 Ack.

If you do read it (and thanks for the recommend, Paty) I hope you let me know if you enjoyed it!

Genene Valleau said...

Of course I have animals in my stories--in fact, most of my stories have animals. And I love to read stories with animals. Don't usually tell a story from an animal's POV--though I did partially in the novella I wrote for St. Patrick's Day.

I do stick mostly to dogs with a few cats and other critters occasionally. Amazing the variety of pets you grew up with! I don't worry about research, as my life is pretty much living research with my canine herd.

However, I did scale back on the animals in my series that will be published starting next year. There are already lots of people to keep track of, so the animals have smaller "bit" parts.

I remember and use Alice's caution about remembering where you left the dog (or cat or baby!). It's not so hard with dogs because I'm used to having them in my everyday life, but I'm a bit out of practice with babies. :)

Obviously, this post struck a chord with me. Really enjoyed it!

Sarah Raplee said...

Genene, I once had seven cats (long story). How many dogs do you have? Oddly, it is the dogs rather than the cats that tend to show up in my stories. I thought i was a cat person. :)

I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Sarah Raplee said...

Alice, what's the name of your Silhouette with the major dog character? I just realized I forgot to ask! LOL

Alice Sharpe said...

Sarah -- It's called A Tail of Love, wink, wink. Thanks for asking!

Alice Sharpe said...

the wink, wink part is not in the title!

A Tail of Love.

Genene Valleau said...

Hi, Sarah! I have six dogs at the moment. That seems to be a good number for me, at least until we get some property out in the country.

Dogs may show up in your stories because cats tend to be more aloof and not lower themselves to communicate with mere humans. :)

Sarah Raplee said...

Alice - Thanks!

Genene - You may be right about the cats. :)