Portraying Pets With Personality

Have you ever considered that animals have personalities?

We’re on the move this week, visiting some of our family in BC’s Okanagan and Kootenays. All our families include dogs (although there is one cat among the canine crowd), and all of them get along well with each other. They may not tolerate the intrusion of a neighbour’s dog but a family member’s is welcomed with enthusiasm, and remembered by name between visits. It’s as though they understand they’re part of an extended family.

Each one has its distinct characteristics and that started me thinking about how we depict pets in our novels. Unless the story focuses on an animal, such as in Marley and Me, it seems like they are a presence without personality. They exist for the children to play with, as company for the protagonist, or as a threat to the antagonist. They’re just there. They are little more than “set dec”.

What a missed opportunity! Different breeds have different characteristics and the canny writer will research these and choose one that fits the character’s lifestyle, or create tension with one that is totally unsuitable. Just as a healthy plant enhances the hominess of a living room, so the right pet can complement a scene, offer comic relief or perhaps help reveal character flaws.

Have you included pets in your stories? What purpose have they served? Consider doing a short writing exercise that features an in-depth look at your favourite animal.

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24 thoughts on “Portraying Pets With Personality

  1. Tricia says:

    I have quite a few animals in my book. Some are props, but a few I’ve spotlighted for their unique personalities. I had great fun digging a little deeper with the animal characters. I just had to be careful they didn’t steal the show.

  2. JaxPop says:

    I haven’t written about any pets but they do have personality.

    Our cat acts more like a dog & he’s very obedient. Trying to figure out what we’re going to do with old ‘Nubber’ now that we’re leaving town for a whole year. He’s 17, set in his ways, & spoiled rotten. I dunno – this is a real pickle.

    • You mean rattlesnakes don’t qualify as pets?

      I guess some cats manage to move with their owners while some can’t deal with the change very well. If he’s strictly an indoor cat and relates so well to you maybe he could go with you? Or if someone will be occupying your St. Augustine home in your absence would they take over care of him? I’ve never had to face that dilemma since our dogs have always just made the moves with us.

  3. joylene says:

    Safe trip, Carol. I don’t write about our pets and now I’m wondering why. I’ll need a few days to think about that. Hope you have lots and lots of fun.

  4. I love writing in animals–especially dogs. Dogs are so much fun!

  5. Laura Best says:

    I’ve only ever once written about a family pet once.It was a story titled the chestnut pony. The pony ended up being sold, the mother abandoned the family. I seem to write about sad things so much of the time…

  6. I’ve never written a pet into a story. I hadn’t realized that until now! Maybe I’m leery of putting an animal through the same wringer that I put my characters through. I will suggest your writing exercise to my writing group. Sounds like fun.

    • If you’re an animal lover, that reason would make sense although as a secondary character a pet wouldn’t necessarily have to be subjected to stress… maybe just help provide some for someone else.

  7. There is a puppy in my novel. He’s a mutt, but there are so many combinations he could be that I’ve ended up with a sort of generic description of him. I think it’s because I don’t know much about the temperament of different breeds. He is a gift from one of the main characters to another.

  8. Cher says:

    Animals make great characters for stories. My work in progress has a cat who is actually the reincarnation of the main character’s great grandmother.

    Personality in animals? Of course they have personalities.

  9. Jeanette says:

    Carol: What an intriguing post. I’ve written many stories about my pets, all cats.

    Chicken Soup for the Soul is now accepting submissions for stories about Cats and Dogs until March 30th. You can go to their website for guidelines. They pay $200 on publication.

    • Thanks, Jeanette. I’ve never written stories specifically about our dogs (except for the occasional blog post) but all the main characters in my novels have at least one dog that plays a significant role. I’ve never quite gotten around to submitting anything to CSS. Might just have to think seriously about it.

  10. Shari says:

    It never occurred to me before now, but none of my characters have pets. What’s with that? I’ll have to remedy the situation in my next novel.

  11. Sue Harrison says:

    I put a dog – Biter – in my second Alaska trilogy and an otter in my first Alaska book, Mother Earth Father Sky. In my 2 romantic suspense novels that haven’t yet found a publishing “home” I have a dog in the first and a cat in the second. In the novel I’m writing now, I have a beagle that my FB friends named Brewster. I agree with you, Carol, pets add a wonderful dimension to a novel!! Thanks for the fun post!

    • Carol says:

      Someone once told me stories that include pets have a warmth that’s akin to a room with houseplants. They add a certain homeyness. I *think* I get the comparison. 😐

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