Writing Animal Characters

Hey everyone! Been a while, hasn’t it? My apologies for the mini-break, I’ve been knee deep in NaNoWriMo, and I thought I’d get back into the swing of things by talking about something that makes me incredibly happy.

One comment I receive a lot about my writing is that my characterization is excellent. Another comment I get a lot is that this even extends to non-human characters, characters who the reader should ordinarily find it hard to relate to. In particular aliens, fantasy beasts and characters who cannot speak in ways we are familiar with.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you may have an inkling of why this is. I collect books from strange and unique perspectives. When growing up, Watership Down was a massive part of my childhood, as was the Warrior Cats series. As I’ve gotten older, I moved instead onto natural history books, which often tell the story of an animal’s life from beginning to end, with neither dialogue nor human characters to provide a bridge between our two perspectives.

In these cases, it is not dialogue or even the narrator who tells us how to feel, but the main character’s actions and interactions with the world itself. This is often referred to as show, don’t tell, and it is especially important here. The same action can also portray a wildly different mood depending on the context. As with all things, how your animal characters respond to context cues is key.

The dog’s ears pricked.

Depending on the context, this could indicate curiosity. It could also indicate caution. It could also, if another character is talking to them, indicate understanding or intelligence. You could add to this further in order to give this unnamed dog more personality.

The dog’s ears pricked, and his tail began to wag.

The dog’s ears pricked, the fur along his spine beginning to rise.

Whilst I’ve not described the exact emotions the dog is feeling in these statements, each one of them offers a distinctly different message. And depending on what he is responding to in context, the reader gets a sense that the dog is his own character with a distinct personality.

Just because a creature has no voice, doesn’t mean it is any less of a character than those who can speak. Whilst it may not be necessary to create a ‘script’ of how your animal characters respond to everything, beginning to end, it’s important to be aware that animals will respond to different things differently. One dog may like to play fetch, whereas another may be scared of frisbees. One might like carrots, another might refuse to eat anything but French cuisine. Switch out the dog for any other animal and you’ll need to think about the unique ways in which they use body language. Rats, for example, have a dramatically different way of showing emotions, but by researching into them, you’ll find that they can be just as expressive as dogs.

Finally, think about what makes your animal characters important to your story. Are they important to your characters, or the overarching plot? Are they a guide, or there for comedy relief? Once you know your character’s role in the story, it will be far easier to make that character feel consistent and necessary to the story.

Of course, just like with any character in any work of fiction, using one statement such as “the dog’s ears pricked” won’t be enough. But scattering many little moments like this throughout your work will cause the pieces to come together and paint a clear picture of a character with their own distinct personality, even if they have not said a word.

Thank you all for joining me this week, and to all those currently working on your NaNoWriMo projects; Good luck!!

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