Have you ever noticed that very few animals die in books? Even war novels rarely focus on four-legged casualties, and in movies you rarely see a character kill (or injure) an animal (or a child, but that’s a related subject for a different day). There’s a rule about killing animals, as most good writers know.
Fewer of us remember that it also works in reverse.
Animals, and particularly a character’s reaction to them, add dimension to character with relatively little effort and (usually) major bang for the word-count buck. Here are four ways (and one corollary) to add depth to character through interaction with animals:
1. Person likes animal. This is the easiest one, because it requires little more than a character speaking, acting or thinking in a way that demonstrates his or her appreciation. For example, a protagonist complimenting another character’s beloved guinea pig. (You didn’t really think we were literally saving cats today, did you?)
2. Animal likes person. This is stronger than #1, because just as most of us like animals, we realize that animals like people who demonstrate certain characteristics (the same ones humans favor, for the most part). Animals follow kindness, a gentle nature, and a quiet voice – all good characteristics, easily shown by the animal’s attention.
The Corollary to #2 is Animal is wrong. Sometimes animals like the wrong people (a thing that people never do…) and the character’s reaction to unwanted canine attention can be just as telling as her interaction with the human beings around her – and more so, depending on circumstance.
3. Person uses or works with animal. Giving your protagonist an animal companion gives numerous opportunities to reveal the character’s thoughts without needing “new scenes” to do so. People interact with animals differently than other people (including the honesty with which they speak) – and an animal companion also gives your antagonist another way to torment the protagonist on the page. Just remember Rule #1 – if you’re going to let Job-the-Ferret die, you’d better have a very, very good reason and that antagonist probably has to follow suit.
4. Save the Emu. Readers like a protagonist who helps an animal in trouble or helps someone else overcome an obstacle to keep an animal they love. It combines our inborn liking for Good Samaritans with the previously-mentioned connection to animals and people who like them. Add in a little girl who’s about to lose her pony and you automatically ratchet up the cliche emotion meter a notch or two. (I was right the first time – ponies are cliche. Give her a python instead.)
You do need to watch for cliches. The cat has been saved many times, and most readers know a gimmick when they see one. That said, plenty of protagonists have reason to interact with animals. Mine have had horses, hunting dogs, snakes, and parrots, just to name a few. The stranger the better, as long as they fit in the tale.
Writers: do you use animals in your narratives? And readers: do you like it or dislike it when they do?
* And yes, the post title is an allusion to the book Save the Cat as well as the post subject. Extra points for those who’ve read both.