By Ellen Buikema
Animal characters are created in all genres, either in cartoon-like or realistic forms. They may be walking, talking substitutes for human characters, or reality-based beings that may or may not be augmented with special abilities. No matter how you incorporate an animal into your story, they should be a memorable character.
Choose Your Animal
Some animals will better fit a particular function in a story. In a reality-based fight scene, a snake probably wouldn’t do as well as a dog or a cat.
Say you are writing fantasy and want a reality-based animal to act as a spy. A bird might work well in this instance, perhaps a raven, as was done in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Ravens are intelligent, playful, and have a sense of humor, having been known to perch on snowy rooftops waiting for people to pass by, and then pushing snow on top of them.
When writing historical fiction, consider researching which animals were popular pets of the era so the animals will be a good fit for the story. Jean Auel conducted an immense amount of research for her brilliant prehistoric fictional Earth’s Children series. She incorporated the domestication of wolves in her work. The main protagonist, Ayla, studies animals in order to hunt for food and learn their habits. Those wolf studies enable her to understand pack behavior and the similarities to the human pack or extended family unit—leading to the domestication of a wolf pup.
One of my favorite animal characters is the dog in Dean R. Koontz’s suspense novel, Watchers. Einstein is a golden retriever, altered at the genetic level by scientists working with the military. This dog has a high intelligence level, psychic ability, and sense of humor along with the characteristics typical of a golden retriever. Einstein functions as a secondary protagonist, a protector, and in a way serves as a comment on human behavior.
Animal stories for children
Children may be more likely to recognize their own traits, the good and the not so good, seen humorously in an animal than written as a child. Frankie Fish, from my Adventures of Charlie Chameleon series is naughty but well meaning. Many children relate to Frankie.
Stories for children often have pets as characters that help their humans learn important life lessons. Sometimes they are a bit like guardian angels with paws. Often the child is the hero but the pet is a crucial character in the story. Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie uses a pup that enables the main protagonist, young India Opal Buloni, to learn how to trust.
One of the oldest forms of children’s literature is the Fable. In these stories, the animal is affiliated with a particular human trait and there is a lesson to be learned. One of my favorites is Aesop’s The Ant and the Dove. The lesson learned is that a kindness is never wasted.
Creating your animal character
- Is the story for adults or children? Animal characters for teen and adult stories will need more subtlety than animals in stories for children.
Prominence and type
- What is the animal character’s role? The animal characters may be secondary sidekicks (comic relief), protagonists, or antagonists.
- Who is the story’s voice? The story may be written from the perspective of the human or the animal.
- Consider physical size. If the character is tiny it will see the world in a much different way than a large one. For example Mouse vs. giraffe; Toddler vs. teen; Toddler vs. Great Dane.
- The best animal characters feel authentic to the animal type and relatable to the reader. This is true for either cartoon or realistic characters. A cat character may be playful but a little too much affection, like one pet too many, will still get you smacked in most realities.
- Whichever animal you choose, writing a list of personality traits and quirks will help as you introduce the character to your readers and develop the story.
- What makes your character different? The animal character may have a similar emotional or physical trait as the protagonist.
- For SciFi and fantasy stories the animal character might read minds or defy the laws of physics.
- Writing a list of special abilities and traits in advance will be useful, especially if there are several characters of varying abilities.
- Your creatures have certain looks and personalities. Names may follow suit. Bandit for one with a mask coloring in the fur, Jester for another with a multi-colored face, Spot, Blackie, Chairman Meow, Dude, the possibilities are many.
- For humor, try a huge dog named Tiny, a tuxedo cat named Scruffy.
- Alliteration works well for animal characters in children’s stories. Black Beauty, Frankie Fish, Tamika Turtle, Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig.
- The background information of the character does not need to be in the story itself, but is handy to know in order to understand what motivates the character. Fictional characters need to feel real. Knowing the backstory helps define that reality.
- Goals, the driving forces, mold the character’s personality. It may give love to a child, or encouragement to an adult. Whatever the case, subtlety weaving goals into the story adds richness and depth.
Obviously, like a human character, there are many details to consider when writing an animal character. Doing it well will make your story memorable.
Do you have animal characters in your stories? Of all the stories you’ve read, do any of the animal characters still bring a smile to your face or terror to your heart? We want to hear all about it down in the comments section!
* * * * * *
Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.