Give Your Characters a Pet

DSCN1781 - CopyI tend to worry about the dog. It’s probably a knee-jerk reaction for a childhood spent reading books like Zachary Ball’s Bristle Face, but if there is an animal in a story, I’m worried about what is going to happen to it. I don’t want anything bad to happen to it. Kill off half of your characters, but leave the children and the animals in peace. Giving a main character a pet can make him or her more likable, but only if the interaction between the pet and its master is handled realistically.

This last semester I’ve been teaching Gillian Flynn’s book Gone Girl in a college class. Gone Girl is the riveting mystery about the disappearance of Amy Elliot Dunne, the woman whose childhood inspired her parents to write a series of children’s books about “Amazing Amy.” Her disappearance sets off a media circus as police began to suspect her husband, Nick Dunne, has killed her. When Amy Elliot Dunne disappears, my first reaction was relief that Bleecker, the cat, was found safe, sitting on the front steps of the couple’s home. Frankly, by the end of the book, as far as all of my students and I were concerned, the only good thing about that bitch Amy was that she liked her cat. Even then, I liked Nick better since his concern was that the front door had been left open and Bleecker might have run off and gotten lost. That’s a realistic detail when dealing with a pet.

If you are writing about a guy on the run from the law in a thriller novel, giving him a dog or a cat probably isn’t a good idea. There isn’t much chance of stability for the animal, and unless it is a Chihuahua tucked into one of those dog purses, it just isn’t a practical thing for him to have a pet that he’s hauling around with him while he’s dodging bullets and sneaking into subways to get away from his pursuers. Karen Robards wrote a romance novel, Night Magic, where the heroine, Clara, is on the run with her cat Puff, accompanied by a CIA agent named Jack. In essence, having a heroine who is on the run and takes her cat with her can be done, as Robards proved, but it can get complicated.

I took my elderly female basset hound, Jemima, with me when I moved half-way across the country. Taking a dog on a long trip wasn’t all that easy even with the various precautions I had made ahead of time. I made sure to bring a jug of water, easily opened containers of wet food, dry food, and a blanket for her to sleep on. No one ever told me that dogs can decide not to poop for three days if they are on a journey, or that she would decide she was a princess and needed to be lifted into the truck every time we stopped to give her some exercise instead of jumping into the vehicle on her own. This was a bit of a problem since I’d had surgery only a few weeks before we moved and I was limited on how much weight I could lift. During the trip she also shed more than I thought was possible, and I was used to the quantity of hair bassets normally shed, which is a lot already. There was no chance that I would leave her behind, of course, I adored her, but there was a lot more to taking a dog on a trip than I had thought there would be. After what I learned from moving with Jemima, I would probably never give a pet to a character on the run.

If your main character is going to be interacting in the same environment for most of your story, there is an upside to giving him or her a pet. It allows your character to show a caring, nurturing side. Studies have shown that women are more likely to approach a man if he’s walking a dog. When I took my basset hound Stephanie for walks at Pittsburg State University, she seemed to know who was a dog person and who wasn’t. She wagged her tail at the not-a-dog-people, but she charged up to any cute co-ed who was putting off dog person vibes, promptly herself getting fussed over. When my oldest son was considering going to college in Pittsburg, Kansas, I got Stephanie a T-shirt that said, “Wingman.” I told him, “Take her over to the college. She’s the best pick-up partner you’ll ever have.” He ended up going to another college, but I’ve got Stephanie and her T-shirt ready just in case he ever needs her help to meet charming, dog-friendly women.

There is a right way and a wrong way to add a pet into a story. If you just say, “Okay, my character needs a pet so he can seem like a wonderful human being. Here’s a pet.” If he never interacts with the pet, if the pet has no purpose except to be “the pet,” don’t bother. You don’t want unnecessary clutter in your story. I never add a gratuitous pet in my fiction. There are no pets in the short stories I’ve had published because none of those stories needed the addition of a pet for the story. It might actually make your character a lot less sympathetic if he never shows any love or concern for his pet.  If you don’t have a pet who is important to you, that you view as a member of your family, or you aren’t a “pet” person, you will not understand how pet owners interact with beloved animals. You would be better off just leaving the pet out and show your character’s personality by his or her interactions with other humans.

If you decide to give your character, such as a teenage boy or young adult male, a boa constrictor as a pet, this might be a seriously bad idea. If your teenage boy’s mother or girlfriend doesn’t like the snake and they are constantly wishing he would get rid of it, you have just labeled your character as a selfish, childish, inconsiderate little douche-bag, especially if what he likes about the snake is that everyone else hates it. If the mother and girlfriend love the snake and get a big thrill out of seeing the snake eat live rodents, either all of your characters are seriously creepy and your readers will be expecting them to be serial killers, or readers aren’t going to buy the story – in two ways, either as realistic or off a bookstore shelf. Remember something important – people are not obligated to like your characters, your story, or buy your book. Just because you think your boa constrictor is awesome, a whole lot of people, including me, won’t bother reading a book about a person who has a snake for a pet.

A lot of people have exotic pets, but be cautious about using them in a story. Not everyone will respond to the charms of a bearded dragon. James Lee Burke was able to successfully use a three-legged raccoon, Tripod, in his Dave Robicheaux series. In his books, his characters interact with Tripod on a regular basis with affection even when the raccoon does the sort of destructive things that raccoons are prone to do. I had a wild raccoon who let herself in through the doggie door to eat dog food and roamed my house at will, occasionally going on a raccoon-rampage and get into stuff in the kitchen, so I could relate to a lot of the things that Tripod did. Unlike my wild raccoon, Tripod was tame. Burke’s characters carry him around like a huge cat and Robicheaux’s daughter allows him to sleep in her bed. Burke is one of the few writers I have known who has successfully used an exotic animal in his books. Even when a person has a fantasy pet, such as a pygmy puff in the Harry Potter series, or a pet dragon in a fantasy book, the pet usually has the characteristics of a domestic pet, and its interaction with its master can be easily recognized as being similar to that of a cat or dog.

Jim Butcher’s best-selling series The Dresden Files is an example of the successful way to add pets into a story. In The Dresden Files, Harry Dresden has two pets, a thirty-pound cat named Mister, and a huge dog named Mouse. Although there were times when Harry feared for the safety of his pets, both have continued to live and thrive throughout the series. Mouse is often Harry’s backup in a fight, or used to guard Harry’s friends when they are in danger. At one point Harry fears that Mouse has been killed and this inspires him to wreak havoc on the bad guys. Even when his basement apartment is being destroyed by fire, he uses magic to break a window so Mister can escape. Notice what that implied: Harry didn’t worry about his possessions that were being destroyed, he worried about saving his beloved cat’s life. It is doubtful that Butcher will ever allow the animals to be seriously harmed or killed. Even when Harry temporarily dies, one of his concerns while he is a ghost is for the well-being of his pets. He is relieved to learn that both are with his friends, cared for and safe.

The difference between writers who are able to successfully incorporate pets into their stories and those who are not seem to be based on one criteria: Do they actually have pets that they love? Butcher uses a photo of him with his Bichon Frise, Frost, on his Twitter account. He posted on Twitter when Frost passed away, the dog who was always referred to as a “ferocious guard dog” in his author burb on the back of his books. During one of his interviews he discussed with obvious affection the Maine Coon kittens he and his fiancée bought. He used talking cats in his The Cinder Spires series. Loving your own pets and paying attention to their behavior is the key to writing realistically about a pet in a story.

I’ve used my own pets in my stories. There are two basset hounds in the young adult series I’m working on. My main character, Chandler, spends most of his time at a boarding school for students with paranormal abilities, but when he is at home, he has two basset hounds, Raleigh and Spencer. Raleigh and Spencer are named after two rescue bassets that I owned until they passed away, and I have included their physical characteristics and personality traits in my story. The only thing Chandler likes about his step-sister, whom he refers to as “Shelby the Wicked,” is that she likes his dogs. One of the pivotal scenes in their tense relationship was when they are discussing her mother’s nervous breakdown while Shelby hugs Raleigh for comfort. Just as the fiction Raleigh does for Shelby, the real Raleigh would often sense if I needed comfort and come over to me to offer his emotional support.

There are many best-selling series whose main characters never have pets. If you decide to give your main character a pet, make sure your story requires it. The truth is that you will only see a pet as being necessary to your story if you view pets as being important in your own life. It is hard to write about dog and cat behavior, especially characteristics of a particular breed, if you don’t have a pet of that breed. I’ve spent my entire life with dogs, and much of my life with cats. I have a preference for stories where a pet is important to the main character. However, I would rather read a story with no animals at all, than read a story where animals are harmed.

Photo is of my youngest basset Tabitha when she was a six week old puppy.