June 20, 2021 • 2 Comments
Never work with animals or children. – W.C. Fields
Pets steal the show, whether at a family picnic, in a meme, or as part of your story. Thousands of cat videos prove the magnetic attraction of furry characters, the more ridiculous the better. As a case in point, readers of Smolder, third in the Crown of Fae series, talked as much about Kifi the talking temple cat as the hero, heroine, and villains combined. Small, sassy, and very much the star of her own story, she got to be outrageous in ways that human characters could never pull off.
Writing such characters well isn’t always easy. Stage management is a constant problem. If your book is a romance, Fido has to be parked before the humans can have alone time. If it’s an action-packed thriller, one is in a constant state of saving the cat. As a rule, I carefully control the amount of time the little scene-stealers are on the page. Otherwise, as the storyline becomes a logistics nightmare, dog-napping starts to look like a practical plot twist. Plus, while any side character can hog the limelight, animals are the worst. Don’t give them all the best lines.
So why include an animal as a side character in your book? The cute factor wears off eventually, but pets can be effective character extensions of their humans. What does it say about the lumberjack when it turns out he picks a goggle-eyed pug over a pit bull for his rescue project? Have you noticed how many B-movie villains own smug felines? The Game of Thrones series (especially the books) used a litter of wolf puppies as shorthand for the lives and fates of the Stark children. Through their presence, animals can contrast or comment on the rest of a narrative and its characters.
Or, they can level up and play a role in the action. Murder-solving pets are a staple of the mystery genre. A favorite of mine is Monty the golden retriever and his handler, Sarah Patrick, in Iris Johansen’s mysteries. Monty is a cadaver dog, which gives him an important role in the stories. He knows his role and understands when he’s done his job—or when he’s failed—in a very realistic way. An animal’s vulnerability naturally heightens the emotion of a situation, whether that’s for laughter or nail-biting drama.
Integrating an animal character into the plot can mean giving them a story goal and character arc. In Smolder, Kifi joins the quest so she can meet her queen, a decision that turns out to have important consequences for the human characters. Kifi is also a feline, with all the sassy good and bad that entails. There is a temptation to make pets too adorable, and a dash of naughtiness avoids sentimentality.
The gold standard, in my opinion, remains the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. He writes about talking animals, but they are memorable creations with personality, flaws and a purpose. The author treats them as fully formed characters and so makes them integral to the story. No one who has met Reepicheep or Mr. Tumnus will soon forget them.
Even if that’s going deeper into fantasy than is appropriate for your story, it’s worth considering what’s on your fictional pet’s mind. The trick is to make those fuzzy characters work hard for their time on stage and deliver good story value. When W.C. Fields warned that animals can easily steal the show, he understood their power to entertain.