Friday, August 10, 2007

Animals as Characters

Most writers when I say, think of the animals in your book as characters, think I mean to treat them as humans, with human emotions and motivations. Cats who solve crimes. Penguins who long to karaoke to rap music. Guinea pigs who look like ordinary pets but who are really matchmakers for the workers at the wood shaving factory.

What I really mean is to treat them as individuals, whether they’re ordinary animals or ones with extraordinary powers or gifts. No two cats are totally alike; they do have their own personalities. For that matter, no two turtles are alike. And certainly the two most commonly used animals in books – cats and dogs – are different.

If your animals speak, even if only they and the reader can hear them, it’s a little easier to show the different personalities. But even if they’re ordinary animals, you can differentiate them. Just like when you’re getting ready to write a human character, do some research. Pay attention, listen, watch.

For example, I currently have two dogs at my house. One is mine and one belongs to a friend of my son. Both dogs, but very different dogs.

My dog is a miniature Schnauzer who’s getting advanced in years. She’s thirteen. She’s been called Devil Dog. Not because she’s mean; she is in fact sweet – to the family – and has the most innocent face. If you come to my house, she wants you to pet her. Don’t. She has sort of a split personality. She wants to be friendly and really, really wants you to pet her, but as soon as you do, she remembers you’re not family. She’s getting hard of hearing and doesn’t see as well as she used to. Most mornings she has to be talked down the stairs because they seem to scare her.

The visiting dog is bigger, sort of a medium sized dog. It’s like she’s always smiling. She likes to be outside and won’t leave the yard. Ever. Unless you take her. I can open the door, let her out, and not worry. She’ll scratch on the glass when she wants back in. She drinks tons of water; I have to fill her bowl several times a day. If you throw a stick, she’ll run and play and flop in the grass to chew the stick.

Very different dogs. And, yet, similar in ways. The visiting dog ate some grass, came inside and threw up. She was quite embarrassed and contrite, slinking around, head down, eyes up to see what I would do, staying by my side, rubbing my leg. Very similar to what my own dog would do.

Yesterday while the visiting dog was in the front yard playing with the stick, my dog came out. She trotted out to the yard, barked a bit and went boing, boing, boing, bouncing in the grass, like she was two years old. Pretty quickly, though, she trotted back and wanted inside to the air conditioning. The visiting dog, on the other hand, likes to sun bathe.

Two dogs. Two different personalities. It’s difficult not to give animal characters human characteristics. Notice some of the words I’ve used: embarrassed, contrite, sweet, mean, innocent, smiling. As long as it’s not overdone, that doesn’t bother me. And it probably won’t bother your readers. What would probably bother your readers would be animals who are like miniature humans on four legs or two fins. Animals that have no separate personalities. The horse and the goat are just alike. The two white rats act the exact same way.

Without turning them into teeny humans, treat them like you would human characters. Give them different looks, as well as varying personalities and quirks, different voices (barks, meows, etc.), unique habits and ways of behaving. Don’t skimp on making the most of the animal characters in your book.

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