How to Write an Animal Character
Written by
She Writes
July 2019
Written by
She Writes
July 2019

This guest post is from author Ellen Clary. Her book Pursuits Unknown: An Amy and Lars Novel features a lovable dog companion so she shared how she goes about creating a four-legged character readers will love. 

Readers of Pursuits Unknown will quickly discover that, while Lars is prominently featured, he is not the "main" character of the story, he and Amy are a team that work together. That said, he does command quite a presence, even though he doesn't have a lot of lines, but what he says really counts, and Amy gets an enormous amount of information from him.

As with any character, decide on what some basic guidelines are for the character and stick to them. Readers want consistency. Characters are allowed to grow and change, but it has to be in a natural expected progression, unless you want your character to be considered crazy or unstable.

If you are using an animal, decide on how they communicate. Some authors have their animal be non-verbal, others have them talk. Rita Mae Brown and others have the animals just talk among themselves and the humans can't hear them. So decide on whether your animals interact with humans, or if they just keep to themselves.

My dogs can communicate in a limited telepathic fashion. To add dramatic tension, I kept the mental ages of the dogs to the equivalent of a really bright two or three-year-old human. They don't really talk in complete sentences, but they are learning more about communicating with humans as the books proceed.

Dogs and Cats and Horses

Decide if your animal is going to be human-like or not and what that is going to look like. My dogs are dogs, and are not much into philosophy like some more popular literary canines are. They like their people, and they love finding lost people as it's the greatest game of all.

I should warn you that if you want to write mysteries and use a cat as a character, you will have a lot of company. There is an entire category for it that you can read all about here.

Using a cat to solve mysteries does have a delicious irony that I love. Researchers put cameras on cats to study their behavior at night. They learned that some cats really, really like to kill for fun. This gives lie to the adage that only humans kill for sport. Wrong. People, and cats, and raccoons kill just for "fun." Be happy that you are much larger than your cat.

Defining Characteristics

As with any human character, give your animal characteristics that set them apart. This can be appearance or behaviors, likes and dislikes. My dogs have their fun little obsessions. The Corgi has a burger thing. The Lab is completely into tennis balls. Lars the Kelpie-Shepherd main character likes to pester Amy's trainer Tom (which didn't make it into the first book), and Lars is forever calling squirrels "rabbits" A dog could hate the mail carrier or delivery person, and be in love with the pizza delivery person.

Cats seem to excel at not liking people, or hating one particular person, and you could spend a lot of time trying to decipher what those screaming cat fights are all about. And someone needs to create a cat as an impossible restaurant critic.

If you're going to use a horse, you'll have to decide whether to use a horse's natural flighty disposition or not. It really is optional, given that horses have been ridden into all sorts of mayhem and have been sometimes trained out of freaking out over a blowing piece of paper.

The natural male-dominated horse social order is so different from our more egalitarian system, that you could write an entire book series about the mares holding a coup, and completely changing their system.

Other Fun Animal Companions

And there's no end to what you could do with a bird. Bird are intensely social creatures. Well most of them. You do have the sulky loner raptor. What's cool about birds is that you have so many different types, and they all act just a little differently. There are some natural tensions within bird communities that you can really play on. Near my house we have Cooper's hawks that raise a family every year. We also have 200 Crows. Crows really hate hawks. Sometimes one crow will pester a hawk. Other times, 200 screaming crows with harass a hawk. I haven't seen any hawk lynchings, but I haven't ruled it out. What's fun about birds, is that you could consider it a United Nations and work from there. They have different languages, food preference, flocking behavior. Some love to fly. Others hate to fly. Some are scavengers. Others would rather just murder other birds. No end of potential drama. You could do an entire Finding Nemo with birds instead. (Seagulls and pigeons aside.)

I've always thought at squirrels were too ignored. Someday there will be a squirrel revolution that we probably should have seen coming.

If you are dead-set on having an animal as the main character, you have a whole different set of challenges ahead of you. For a story to be considered "a story," your main character has to be given a problem to solve. A challenge to overcome. A battle to win. Your character would have to be verbal, likely written in first person. You will have to be inside their head, which is an interesting challenge. C. J. Cherryh's creatures like the Hani come to mind and all the political interspecies intrigue that her worlds are constantly dealing with. However, these are not animals like we usually think of them, but different species entirely.

If you've managed to get all the way through this, you are likely left with more questions than answers, but, in a way, that is the writing life. You are never done asking.

Ellen Clary is a dog-owning computer professional who has both literary and technical college degrees. She has a love of dog behavior and training, as well as a dog sports habit. Formerly a humor writer, she now wants to write dog-related novels that she, and others, would like to read. A California native, she now lives in a Victorian house in the San Francisco Bay Area with her wife and dogs.

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