March 16, 2017

Tips for Writing Animals into Your Stories

Whether the pet is a dog or cat, I enjoy reading about the interaction of the character with the pet. Pet owners have unique responsibilities that writers should not take lightly. My protagonist in the Jenna Scali mystery series owns two cats. Those cats depend on her for their food, affection, and care. She goes about her day, but not forgetting to feed the cats or empty their litter box. Dog owners must add walking the dog or letting the animal out at certain intervals during the day. All these activities add to the main character’s personality. Does your main character enjoy walking her dog or does she feel it’s an imposition? Often in mysteries, cats and dogs can sniff out the bad guy. Their ears go back or they growl. Paying attention to these details is the job of the writer.

Here are some tips for writing animals into your stories:

Tip #1: The animal must behave like an animal. I do not enjoy books where the cat solves the mystery, that is, figures everything out and does very un-catlike things. Instead, the challenge of the writer is to allow the cat to do normal cat things but the way they do them give rise to questions that might lead to solving the mystery. Dogs might dig something up that had been hidden. Animals have many behaviors that are typical of that animal but can create suspense in thd4c191a5d9cf8cbf52138415bc2ba374e story.

Tip #2: Don’t forget about the animal. If you character has been kidnapped, that character might worry about her life and whether or not she’ll get out of the mess she’s in, but she will still worry about her dog. Who will let him out? Will he think I abandoned him? Is he hungry?

Tips #3: If the animal is threatened, make sure you’ve got good reason for it. In the e-Murderer one of Jenna’s cats is cat-napped. The killer did this because he knew how it would affect Jenna. She has a strong attachment to her cats. But, the cat escaped. Killing an animal to show the viciousness of a killer is cheap. That viciousness can be shown in other ways.

Tip #4: Animals can show a different side of a human’s behavior. You may have created an assassin who never gives killing another person a second thought. Perhaps that assassin sees a hungry dog and feeds it. Perhaps that dog follows the assassin home. Our villains, just like our heroes, are multidimensional. Animals can help show the other side of a person.

Tip #5: Please don’t ask the animal to talk or do other anthropomorphic behaviors. There are exceptions to this rule. In the book The Art of Racing in the Rain, the dog narrates the entire book. But, he’s still a dog. He thinks like us as he narrates, but he’s interested in food, in smells and in the mood of his human caretaker. The author does an amazing job of putting us in the dog’s head.

Animals in Your Stories

IMG_0873I love to read about characters who have pets. Whenever there is a cat or a dog in a book, my interest peaks. I do not, however, like it when animals do things that are superhuman. I don’t like for the animals to talk nor do I like it when they solve crimes. The one exception for me was the fascinating book, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. The author wrote the entire book from the dog’s point of view. He did a great job of getting into the mind of the dog. The dog couldn’t do super-dog things, but he did see things from a dog’s perspective.

What I don’t like is to see animals hurt. When an author uses an animal to demonstrate a character’s cruelness, I consider that a cheap method. I loved The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, but I hated when Stieg Larsson killed a cat. After experiencing what this killer did to women, why kill a cat? It was unnecessary.

To contrast this misuse of animals with a great demonstration of how to use an animal to show a character’s humanity, William Boyd in Ordinary Thunderstorms had his sociopathic villain meet a dog. He villain didn’t want a dog and didn’t want to take care of the dog. As the book progressed, it became clear that the dog jeopardized the killer’s life. He had to kill it. I skipped ahead because I couldn’t experience him shooting the dog. He’d already brutally killed several people in the book, and he was threatening the life of the book’s hero. Once I skipped ahead, however, I realized the dog was still alive. The villain couldn’t kill the dog. He did abandon him, but at a home where he knew the dog would be cared for. What an amazing thing for Boyd to do! Although I disliked the killer, the author showed a bit of humanity that still remained in this villain–a multidimensional character. That’s awesome writing.


In my own books, my characters have animals. In The Clock Strikes Midnight both main characters have pets. Janie has a yellow lab named Charlie and Marlene has a cat named Nellie. Neither play prominent parts, but both demonstrate the characters’s compassion for their four-legged creatures.

To all the authors out there, I say, PLEASE don’t kill your animals to make a point. Find a better way to do it!

What do you think? How do you bring animals into your stories?

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