Most of us have heard about the health benefits animals can have for those who care for them. Scholarly articles round up studies that show that pets offer therapeutic value for people struggling with depression or chronic illness, as well as soothing loneliness and isolation. Ask any pet lover and they’ll tell you how much they treasure their companions, or tell tales of animals that simply “know” when they’re hurting.
As the owner of three cats, I can tell you about many times where they offered comfort in difficult times. Recovering from abdominal surgery a few years back, I was bedridden and in pain. My oldest cat, Gravity — never a lap cat, but affectionate — gently walked up to me and laid down, resting her head perfectly between my incisions so as not to cause pain, one paw stretched to gently cover the sorest spot. A second cat took residence between my feet. Their love was of great comfort.
We know about the power of the bond with a pet. So why do pets seldom come up in the discussion of supporting characters? With their lack of human language and their honesty, animals can serve several critical roles in a book.
A Friend In Times Of Need Is A Friend Indeed
In the 2007 film adaptation of I Am Legend, Robert Neville is closely bonded with Sam, a German Shepherd he dotes upon like a child. In a post-apocalyptic world, isolation can certainly push someone to their absolute limits. Sam serves as a beacon of hope, a reason to live. She bravely accompanies her master into harrowing conditions, willing to protect him at any cost. For me, the story was average at best without this element. Sam and Robert’s bond adds an emotional connection, a pair to root for.
Best friends serve a critical role in a story. They need not be of the same species.
A Way To Draw Out Character Traits Not Easily Revealed Otherwise
In Courtney Summers’ Cracked Up To Be, Parker Fadley pushes her parents to get a puppy. It’s not because she wants a dog, per se; it’s because she wants her parents to fall in love with the dog (and forget about her). Although she often shuns Bailey, two moments in the book reveal a side of Parker that she desperately wants to deny. During a stormy night, Bailey fusses and refuses to settle for lying outside her parents’ door. Parker relents and falls asleep in the living room with the dog, revealing perhaps a desire to be nurtured through her own inner storm. In a second scene, Parker’s anxious clinging to Bailey’s leash results in him trying to fetch and hurting himself. Her fear that Bailey will not forgive her for the accidental choking is also highly revealing, a moment of vulnerability from a character who works hard to conceal her wounds.
In my own book, Change of Season, Autumn Brody has completely isolated herself from friends and family. Her beloved cat, Pandora, is one of the few connections she maintains. The softness of their exchanges, the nurturing she shows her cat, is intentionally juxtaposed alongside her aloof and sometimes abrupt behaviour. Autumn’s not a bad person; she’s simply afraid to be vulnerable and open with people. With Pandora, she feels safe to be herself, which allows readers to connect more readily.
As A Metaphor For Humanity
Animals can work well in representing the behaviour of their human counterparts. One of the most well-known instances is Jack London’s White Fang, a book that deals with themes of civilization, while also running parallel to London’s own life. Perhaps an animal in your next book will undergo a journey that helps the protagonist become more aware of their own growth, or lack thereof. Perhaps in caring for a troubled feline, the heroine learns to love herself.
There’s a reason a dog toys with the carcass of a dead bird in the opening of Change of Season. It’s a metaphor for how Autumn sees herself at the start of her journey.
Good or bad, in brief moments or expanded roles, animals can lend a richness to the stories we create. They are another incredible tool in the writer’s box, one worth exploring if you have never done so before.
Have you written animal characters into your books before? What role did they serve? How did they elevate the story?