Pets: Ways to Include Animals to Enhance Your Fictional World

Using fictional pets in writingI love writing pets into my stories. Not only is a great way to show a killer’s soft side, but they become important family members for the main characters. In my stories, I’ve used a Rottweiler, mastiff, and St. Bernard (MARRED and CLEAVED), a calico, tabby, and all-black cat (Wings of Mayhem), pet crows (Blessed Mayhem), and a black bear (A Sultry Abyss in SCREAM). I’ve even borrowed a friend’s Bulldog for Black Out (RUN), but I felt so responsible for him, I couldn’t include him like I’d originally planned. God forbid I returned him emotionally scarred from the experience. It’s much safer to use fictional pets.

Need a way to show your character’s quirky side? Include a bearded dragon, snapping turtle, boa, tarantula, or exotic bird.

Is your character adventurous? Give him a pet moose, lion, leopard, or tiger to love. How ‘bout a pet elephant? When writing about pets let your imagination soar.

Fit the pet to a specific character to cue readers about their personality. By using well-thought-out animals, it can say a lot about who they are, where they live, or even, their state of mind. It’s also fun to juxtapose. Give a tattooed biker a Chihuahua or toy poodle. Readers will love it!

A few things to keep in mind when writing pets into fiction…

If you kill the pet, you better have a damn good reason for it, a reason readers will understand.

For example, Bob and I watched John Wick recently. [SPOILER ALERT] I fell in love with the Beagle puppy his dead wife sent him. When the bad guys murdered him I almost shut off the movie. If my husband hadn’t begged me to keep watching, that would’ve been it for me. Turns out, this moment kicked off the quest (First Plot Point in story structure). Not only is it an important scene, but if it didn’t happen there’d be no story. See? Understandable reason why he had to die. John Wick would not have gone ballistic over a stolen car. The puppy was the only thing left he cared about. It had to happen.

The safer option is to not harm the pets.

Why Does the Character Have That Specific Pet?

Like I mentioned earlier, you need to know why the character chose that pet. Is he lonely? Does a couple use their pets to fill a maternal/paternal need? Are you using that pet as a way to show the character’s soft side? Does the pet become the only one who’ll listen to their fears, sorrow, or hidden secrets? In other words, for an introverted character, pets can assume a larger role in the story so your character isn’t talking to him/herself.

As the writer, you need to know why that dog, cat, bird, lizard, or bear is in the story and what role they play in the plot. Does a K9 cop track criminals? Did your criminal character train a horse to be the getaway driver? Does the killer feed his pet hogs or gators human flesh? Why that fictional pet exists is crucial.

What’s the Pet’s Personality?

Animal lovers know each pet has his/her own personality. If you’ve never owned the pets you’re writing about, then I suggest doing a ton of research till you feel like you have. For example, while writing Blessed Mayhem I needed to know how crows communicated and how people could interpret their calls. What separated a crow from a raven, what they felt like, what they smelled like, what foods they enjoyed most. In order to make the characters real I spent countless hours of research into the life of crows. They’re fascinating, by the way. I now want a pet crow of my own. 🙂

What Does the Pet Look Like and How Does S/he Act?

First, you’ve got to know the basics…their markings, voice, breed, habitat, diet, etc. Then delve deeper into the expressions they make when they’re happy, content, sleeping, aggravated, and downright pissed off. Every animal has their own unique personality, mannerisms, and traits. Evoke the readers’ five senses. Don’t just concentrate on sight. By tapping into these deeper areas, our fictional pets come alive on the page. It can really add a great deal to a story, too. A scene where the hero or villain cuddles with a pet can add a nice break from the tension, a chance to give the reader a moment to catch their breath before plunging them back into the suspense.

Plus, they’re fun to write.

Does the Basset Hound snore so loudly he keeps the rest of the family awake? Is he now banished to the garage at night? Does the German Shepherd’s feet twitch when he’s dreaming? Does the Bulldog throw his owner the stink-eye when he can’t reach his favorite toy? (Waving at you, Otto!)

Let’s talk dogs. They do more than bark. Use their full range of grunts, moans, groans, happy chirps, and playful growls when your character plays tug-of-war. For cats, nothing is more soothing than a purr rattling in their throat as your character drifts asleep. Soft claws can massage their back after a brutal day.

Years ago, I had a pet turkey who used to love to slide his beak down each strand of my hair. This was one of the ways Lou showed affection. I’d sit in a lounge chair with a second lounge chair behind me, and Lou would work his magic till I became putty in his beak. He knew it too. After all that hard work, I couldn’t deny him his favorite treats.

Symbolism and Locale

Need an already-creepy area to become even more menacing? Have vultures, eagles, or other carrion birds circle overhead. Use coyotes’ eerie chorus of howls. A lone wolf baying at the moon.

A few favorite background noises and wildlife sounds…

Crickets and tree frogs symbolize a desolate country milieu or swampland.

Dead silence works well too, but sometimes you need that extra oomph to invoke the correct emotional response. Anyone who’s ever spent time outside, in the dark, with only wildlife around for miles, can tell you their calls have a way of raising all your tiny body hairs at once.

Ever hear a Fisher cat? Their cries sound like a baby being slaughtered. This the best YouTube video I could find, but around here they’re even more sinister. When a Fisher cat screams it’s a tough sound to ignore.

If your character is camping or lost in the woods, ground the reader with the songs of nature and a crackling fire.

Near a lake, use water lapping against the shore.

Listening to nature and animal sounds can also be a great way to trigger the muse.

Consistency

If your characters are snuggling with a pet in the first few chapters, then you must include them in later scenes too. Otherwise, the home environment won’t ring true. Where’d the dog go? He was in Chapter Three and now, he’s gone. What happened to him? Animal lovers will notice his/her absence.

If your villain is killed and you’ve gone to great lengths to show how much he loves his dogs, then make sure the reader knows what’ll happen to those dogs after his death. Did your hero just orphan them? Or did the villain write them into his will? Maybe he or she has a family member that will care for the dogs. The tiny details matter. Think of it in terms of yourself. If you own an African Gray, then chances are s/he will outlive you. What provisions have you set in place for his/her care after you’re gone? Same goes for fictional pets.

Aging Pets

Everyone ages, even fictional pets. Sometimes the years aren’t kind. Does your dog character limp from arthritis? Then you can’t let him charge out the door with a spring in his step. He needs to lumber into a room. He’s slower than your younger animal characters. His muzzle now has gray. Around the eyes are graying too. Maybe he takes medication for achy joints. By including the aging process readers can relate. We’ve all had older pets, and it broke our hearts to see them age. Unfortunately, your fictional pet needs to age too. We can prolong this process, but we need to at least show them slowing down. By doing so, we can also show the emotional angst it causes our character to see them this way.

The Day-to-Day

Does your fictional dog have a favorite squeaky toy? Does your cat like to get high on catnip? Maybe s/he knows where your character stashes the bag, and every time they leave the house the cat gets wasted. Maybe your character goes to the local butcher every Saturday to buy the family dog a bone. If your fictional dog is panting in the summer heat, please give him a bowl of water to cool off. Whatever you do, don’t lock him inside a car in ninety-degree heat.

Ever see a dog drunk on apples? It’s hilarious! Let your fictional dog eat fallen apples, then show him stumbling back to the house. How about peanut butter? Peanut butter and animals can be a winning combination. Does your fictional cat walk on the counters? Does your fictional dog beg for food at the dinner table? On the sly do your children characters slip bacon to him? How ’bout cauliflower, and even the dog spits it out. You get the picture.

Have fun with your fictional pets. I do. They’re some of my favorite characters to write.

Fictional Pets in Writing

What about you? Do you enjoy reading about fictional pets? If you write, do you include them in your stories?

Feel free to add tips of your own in the comments.

 

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is a multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter.

21 Comments

  1. I’m not a writer, but a true fan of any character with a non-human companion. I’ve absolutely loved several series that feature pets, tend to look into books with covers featuring furry friends. Unless your series covers a period of over, say, 20 years, DO NOT KILL OFF YOUR FURRY CHARACTER! 🙂

  2. Hmm, looks like my comment got eaten by some internet critter. I mentioned writing Henry, Mac’s Doberman, into the Mac McClellan Mystery series. Rescue pup, birthday gift from Kate Bell, Mac’s girlfriend/Girl Friday. Henry is a “chick-magnet” and very protective of Mac & Kate. Great post, Sue!
    –Michael
    Michael Helms recently posted…Deadly Spirits has Launched!My Profile

  3. Great post, Sue. I’ve written a Doberman into my Mac McClellan Mystery series. Kate Bell (Mac’s girlfriend/Girl Friday) presents him with the rescue pup for his birthday. Henry is all grown now, and quite the chick magnet. Mac loves his “Devil Dog” and Henry has become an important character. Thanks again for posting about pets! 🙂
    –Michael

  4. I started to have my PI adopt a Greyhound at the end of my story when he sold off his share in the racetrack, but knowing his fast lifestyle was afraid I might not be able to work the dog into future books in the series with Richard’s face paced lifestyle. A friend of my killed off his beloved dog in the first book of a series and it mad me so sad I couldn’t finish the series.

    • Smart thinking on your part, Susan. You’re right. If we can’t fit them into future books, it’s best to leave them out of book one. Your friend did what? Nooooooooooooo

  5. Thought provoking piece, Sue. Good stuff. Got me thinking and realized I’ve never used a character-pet device. Hmm – all kinds of combos come to mind… young cop with a cougar is one. BTW, your links to soothing meditation sounds have pop-ups promoting Russian brides 🙂

    • Young cop with a cougar works for me, Garry. The ads on YouTube videos usually change, depending on the users search history, so…it’s just research, right? 🙂

  6. Otto says, “Hi.” I write lots of animal characters. Oreo the fox, Ethan’s horse in Panama, the dog in Playground, even a cockatrice once. Then there is Doubt the raven on my blog. I think they make the world more real, more complete. I’ve used them for many of the purposes you mentioned, and symbolism too.

  7. I’ve put pets in a few of my stories, but the only one where the pet was key to the plot was Food for Poe which featured a black cat. I do love books that include animals and I usually cringe when they’re killed, as they sometimes are, but if the plot warrants it, I can move ahead. Characters are often killed, and pets are characters too, so they’re vulnerable to the same circumstances.

    I have far less tolerance for pets or animals being killed in movies. Probably because of the visual element. I’m such a sap for animals it’s hard to get past that.

    P.S….Staci’s book with the K-9 officer is her latest, PRIDE AND FALL. Incredible opening in that book. I loved the whole thing. 🙂
    Mae Clair recently posted…Did He Really Say That?My Profile

  8. Great post, Sue.

    I put animals in a lot of my work. In fact, my latest release has a German Shepherd K9 officer in it. Pets do reveal a lot about their people, and I agree; animals shouldn’t be killed without a fabulous reason.

    Sharing this on the Story Empire Curated Content post this Friday.

  9. My debut novel was centred around a murder in the horse world so there were horses and they were distinct characters. There were also some key dogs in the plot – a common sight at horse shows. My current mystery has the heroine adopting a raven that plays a key role in the sequel. I seem to slip in character birds as often as horses – usually falcons or ravens.

  10. Make that ‘including.’ *blush*
    Margot Kinberg recently posted…Crime Fiction News BreakMy Profile

  11. This is really helpful, Sue. I couldn’t agree more that pets can give a character all sorts of layers that help that person become more real. What’s more, they add a dimension to the plot. The only comment I would make is that (at least for me) it’s important that pets act, well, like pets. I have to admit I’m not crazy about pets who behave more like humans, if that makes sense. It takes credibility away from the story. Oh, and you’re so right about harm to animals. I really have a problem with that, and a very, very high bar, so to speak, for inlcuding it in stories.

    • Excellent point, Margot. The animals must act like animals and not humans. Talking pets don’t work for me at all. It stretches my disbelief too far. While researching tips, all I found were ways to use human-like pets as POV characters. Huh? Not in my crime fiction. 🙂

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