In all likelihood, you haven’t gone through your life without having experiences with or being affected by an animal in some way. Perhaps you were scared by a gorilla on a trip to the zoo when you were eight or maybe you were shaped by the love you had for your childhood dog. Maybe you went to visit a friend who had a cat who would run out of the room when it saw you. Maybe, over time, the cat grew to love you and that transition was amazing to watch.
Animals aren’t like other characters in your story, they’re less predictable and therefore our reactions to them are less predictable. Your character could be the most bitter and cruel person to other characters in the story, but he could have a completely heartfelt interaction with a puppy. How we react and feel around animals is completely different than how we feel about people in our lives. This means interactions with animals can be a great way to either create a redeeming moment for your character or to show more of who they are than your reader has previously seen.
a) Animal parallels character
One manner in which an animal will add to your story is through character parallels. We’re sure you’re familiar with the phenomenon of old cartoons where dogs always look exactly like their owners? Well, think of it like that. Perhaps your character’s relationship with an animal is that of being soulmates in a sense. It could be that the animal is the only being that the character feels connected with or the animal could comically mimic the gestures of the human they’re encountering. Your character could resent that the animal is following them around and seems to have a similar disposition to them. All of these instances tell us a little bit about your character that we wouldn’t be able to deduce otherwise.
b) Animal opposes character
This could come in two forms. It could be that, rather than highlighting the similarities between your character and the animal, that you do the opposite. Perhaps the kindness of the animal highlights the bitterness of your character. Or maybe the harshness of the animal highlights the kindness of your character as he or she tries to help it despite any inherent danger.
On the other hand, it could also be very literal in that the animal is either attacking or otherwise blocking your character from doing what they’re trying to do in the scene. In this instance, the animal is here to add conflict and provide your character with a situation of which they’ll need to think their way out.
c) Animal humanizes character
Animals not only have their own personalities to play around with, but we naturally see them as beings with more pure/honest motivations. Because we naturally have that sensitivity toward them, how your character treats an animal can help inform the reader on both another layer of who they are and how we’re supposed to be feeling about them. For example, let’s discuss the bitter character we mentioned earlier. If we’ve seen them be nothing but horrible to everyone, we likely won’t feel much other than disdain for them. However, if we see a touching scene where they save a dog they find on the streets, we’re suddenly rethinking our previous perception of them.
d) Animal dehumanizes character
Similarly to the previous example, just as easily as an animal interaction can humanize someone it can also dehumanize them. For example, let’s say you have a character who the reader has seen as nothing but nice thus far. If suddenly the reader witnesses a scene of that character kicking a dog, then now they’re rethinking that entire character and questioning if perhaps he’s not as nice as he first comes across. This can be used to foreshadow the true nature of that character being revealed later on in the story.
Write a scene with a character from your book in which they have an experience with an animal. Perhaps they’re attacked by a shark? Or maybe they meet a homeless cat? Think about what type of scene would be the most revealing for this specific character and write that one.