What Does Fido Say About You?

Animals can say a lot about your characters. Really. The use of animals in your fiction can add dimensions and reveal insights into your characters in a creative way, showing instead of telling. The way someone interacts with animals defines aspects of his personality and hints of his past.


Compassion. Were the heroine’s five cats last minute rescues from animal control? (I like her already.) Does she take in wandering pets and try to reunite them with owners? Compassion is the most common, mostly-implied characteristic associated with pet owners.


Ruthlessness. Darker aspects of an antagonist are exposed when he deals in baby parrots smuggled into the country, or illegally sells prairie dogs despite monkeypox outbreaks associated with touching the animal. Further, few people can tolerate cruelty to animals, the opposite of compassion. This behavior instantly transforms the emotional impact of a character.


Spirituality. Rooted in numerous religions, the respect for animals as totems or nature’s method of communicating with people can reveal a character’s life forces and even reasons behind decisions. The appearance of each animal may also be a source of enlightenment. For instance, sighting a loon is associated with the stirring of old hopes, wishes and dreams.


Fear. The creatures a character fears can expose secrets or painful past events. Move beyond traditional fears (cats, snakes, spiders) to try out more unique possibilities (mocking birds, squirrels, goats.) At age two a squirrel jumped on the heroine’s head and grabbed her peanuts, scarring her for life. Or maybe goats give the hero cold sweats since baby goats at the petting zoo knocked him down on his fourth birthday and tried to eat his clothes.


Loyalty. Despite zoning codes, the loyal granddaughter might keep the newly bequeathed hens, a living connection to her deceased grandmother. After learning Spot is the cause of the sniffling, sneezing and red eyes, does the hero stoically accept the allergy shots rather than even consider the alternative?


Quirkiness. After a storm, does the hero catch the apple of his eye rescuing worms squiggling on the sidewalk and tossing them back in the grass so they don’t dry out? (Can you tell this is me?) His true love might have second thoughts when she learns he shares a bachelor pad with a pig, the four-legged kind.


Shyness. A creative hero might adopt a dog to break the ice between him and a jogger turning his head when she crosses his path. (He should not return the dog if it doesn’t work.) The heroine with a large, intimidating dog could effectively use him to protect her heart as well as her apartment. Perhaps he’s her confidant, the best listener a woman from a broken home has ever had (before hero man, of course.)


Love. Pampering of the treasured pet reveals the infinite boundaries of love. Is no expense spared when a car hits Fido? Do lofty catwalks surround the perimeter of her rooms and lead to a monster kitty condo? (That hero with the Labrador is in trouble here.) These cats go everywhere with her, even weekend getaways, creating either conflict or comedy.


Use of animals in a storyline describe your characters and provides a means of turning introspection into the more dynamic vehicle of dialogue. A static living environment becomes more interesting with the addition of living creatures that make their own decisions, albeit less complicated ones than our own. (As when Fluffy ponders whether or not to let you caress her.) I can’t help wonder what my future husband would have done if my beloved cat Markus had said No when I asked him if I should accept the marriage proposal.


Copyright 2005.  Originally appeared in Rumpled Sheets, March 2005, Publication of the Missouri Romance Writers of America.  Please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for right to reprint.