July 22nd, 2020

Creating Memorable Animal Characters

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

Audience

  • 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.

Perspective

  • 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.

Personality

  • 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.

Special characteristics

  • 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.

Name

  • 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.

Backstory

  • 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.

Goal

  • 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!

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About Ellen

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.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

19 responses to “Creating Memorable Animal Characters”

  1. carolynmcb says:

    In my murder mystery "Body In The Bush", I have a sarcastic moose and an intelligent German Shepherd. Both make me smile, and I hope they do the same for the reader. I too, loved Einstein in "Watchers". It's my favourite Koontz novel, just because of Einstein.

  2. Mary W Johnson says:

    Thanks for a great post, Ellen. Loved the reference to Einstein, who pretty much stole the show in Dean Koontz' book (my favorite was his "Fiddle broken" statement) . -- Considering a dog in a WIP, and your suggestions will help tremendously. Thanks again!

    • Ellen Buikema says:

      Mary, how exciting! I'd love to know about your dog character when it's ready. I'm happy the suggestions are helpful.

  3. Oh, I love this topic! I write fantasy in Deep 3rd and having an animal around when a character is alone is invaluable. It provides the character someone to talk to, even if they're interpreting the animal's responses. On page one of Riparia's series she shares her misgivings about a situation with her horse. "Doppla snorted. Odd how it summed up the situation." My only talking character was a crow, Mazatta. He manages sarcasm in his 2-4 word declarations that also serve as a character's conscience on her way to redemption. There are various other horses, along with Riparia's cirque cat, Trayla (think lynx + sabertooth). Most fun and entertaining were Zepha's rylls (beaver + dwarf lemur). Each has a different personality. Together, they help drive the story early on because of Zepha's intense introversion and awkwardness early in the tale. Animals can be silent companions, almost background, but they can also be friends, comforters, supporters, and so much more.

    • Ellen Buikema says:

      Wow! The rylls sound interesting. Maybe feisty? I like your creature combinations.

      I keep a separate document for each book I write that helps me keep track of characters looks, personalities ... otherwise I lose track of who and what.

      I became curious about ravens after reading "A Game of Thrones". The bit about pushing snow on top of passers-by made me laugh out loud. Very clever.

  4. barbdelong says:

    Love this post! All my stories contain at least one animal. In my current fantasy romance WIP, I have a mouse familiar and a Chihuaha familiar. As I'm editing, I'm fleshing out their backgrounds and roles as appropriate, and they both have a role to play in the climax. But I hadn't thought about actually doing a character chart for them. Now I will. Dean Koontz is a favorite writer of mine in the horror genre. Loved Watchers. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with him and getting his autograph on the book he wrote about his golden retriever Trixie--Life is Good. He has written other books featuring goldens, one that could disappear and reappear at will that inspired another book of mine. His recent release, Devoted, also features a golden. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    • Ellen Buikema says:

      Hi Barb! A Chihuahua familiar is intriguing. I look forward to learning more about your WIP.

      The character chart has saved my bacon a number of times, particularly if I step away from a project for a while. Life gets in the way for all of us.

      How fortunate for you to have met and chatted with Dean Koontz! I should have a look at "Life is Good".

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Wasn't WATCHERS the best book ever? And he is such a very nice man. I haven't read LIFE IS GOOD. I really need to. 🙂

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    I always dig it in witchy stories where there is a familiar. I also like authors who let their animals take active roles. I'm thinking about Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series with Bob the Dog. That dog makes me laugh my butt off.

  6. Eldred Bird says:

    One of my favorite animals in literature is Enzo, the dog in The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. The story is told in first person by the dog. It's brilliantly written, but keep a box of tissues near by as you read...I'm not kidding.

    In the third James McCarthy book, Cold Karma (soon to be released...finally) I use animals to show personal growth in the main character. James is afraid of dogs, so the first time he encounters Nestor's over-sized beast (described as a bounding mass of fur, teeth, and tongue), he's terrified. Learning how to face his fear and deal with Nestor's dog gives him something new he can draw on that will come into play later in the story.

    • Ellen Buikema says:

      Excellent! More good books to peruse. I haven't read this Garth Stein book. Thanks for the tissue tip.

      Using an animal character to show personal growth is a fabulous idea. My main protagonist in my WIP has a tuxedo cat named Macduff. I'm still pondering his role. Now I have more to think about.

    • dholcomb1 says:

      Loved Enzo in the movie.

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    I have a few chapters written with a possible dog adoption as part of the plot, but one character has an allergy. I found a dog known to have less allergen for humans and I asked my allergist about reactions, shots, etc... so the story could be realistic.

    denise

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