In honor of my dog Zak, I wanted to write a post about adding animal characters to our stories. Zak was a handsome and faithful ten year-old lab/husky mix who I had to say goodbye to this weekend. The house has been all too quiet since and we will no doubt miss him terribly. When we invite an animal into our lives, we are taking on a partner of sorts. They don’t become our pets as much as we become their people. As authors of romance and love stories, it’s only right that we should include our furry soul mates in our stories. I don’t know about you and your first encounter with your fur friend, but I fell in love with Zak at first sight. We quickly became best friends, forging a bond that would last his lifetime. I love the idea of incorporating that kind of relationship into my books.
In SAVAGE CINDERELLA, my main character Brinn befriends a bear, rescuing it as a cub after its mother is killed. Since Brinn was still a child at the time, she named the bear cub Kitty, stole milk from a farmer’s goat, and cared for the bear until it was grown enough to fend for itself. From then on, the two were friends for life, Kitty coming to Brinn’s rescue just in the nick of time. (see book trailer here).
It was fun creating that relationship and showing the connection between humans and animals even under the most unusual of circumstances. Animals have a way of getting under our skin right from the start, reminding us that unconditional love is the truest form of love we can express or receive. The bond that we form with them goes beyond pet and master. There is a soul-deep affection and trust that is difficult to explain to someone who has never befriended an animal and spent years living with them side-by-side.
Adding an animal character to a story is challenging, which is why I don’t think we see it done often. You need to make them into a believable, continuous thread of the story.To do it well, in my opinion, you have to sprinkle in the personality traits of the animal and show how they impact the main character. Aren’t we always a perfect match for our pets? By sharing how animal characters interact with the hero and heroine, it can deepen character and connect the reader even more than the hero/heroine relationship itself.
I’ll use Kristan Higgins again as an example because she does this so well. Her fur friend characters are engaging and lively, and are just as quirky as her main characters. They are clearly just one more member of the family. I think Kristan’s success with this is that the dogs aren’t just thrown onto the page to add color. It would be easy to have them distract from the story, but instead they are real secondary characters who are present in the background at all times, affecting the emotions and actions of our main characters, just like our real companions. They also have unique personalities–always ready to express themselves through a bark, a pant, or a set of pathetic big brown eyes begging for some love and attention, or a treat.
In my upcoming YA Dystopian release, WANING MOON, genetically altered teen Lily Carmichael, is accompanied on her journey by a pair of grey timber wolves. Bo and Pappy are brothers, distinguishable only by the scar that Bo carries across his eye and snout from having fended off a polar bear to save Lily. (Don’t ask about polar bears in the Northeast. You’ll just have to read the book.) I had fun writing the wolves into the story and used a lot of Zak’s character traits in doing so. I’ll describe him and you tell me if you don’t see the heart of a wolf in him.
Zak was a fiercely protective dog who thought nothing of challenging a bear or moose if he thought his domain was being threatened. He was stubborn and loyal, and not always terribly bright (just ask the skunks and porcupines that he thought were cats). But he was also totally goofy and handsome the way his ears perked up and shifted at the slightest sound, like two satellite dishes on his head. My biggest challenge after taking him in as a six month old pup was that he had been taken out of two other homes for neglect and he had major abandonment issues, did not get along with other animals, and would become aggressive if threatened or fearful. I tried socializing him, but he had his mind made up that he was going to be a loner. Eventually, we became his pack. He was friendly to children, neighbors and even strangers, but if you tried to do something he didn’t like, he let you know in no uncertain terms that if you didn’t have a tranquilizer gun, you ought to just back off.
Against the advice of vets, I didn’t put him down as a pup. Instead, I moved him out into the country. Here, he was surrounded by woods where he could run free. Amazingly, he never strayed from our property or even far from our sight. He was a great companion for me on our hikes on the vast trail system behind my house. If my husband traveled, Zak was on guard and would no doubt protect me with his life. His daily presence was a comfort to both my husband and me, always greeting us with a bark and a wagging tail. He lay by my side more than once when I was sick, ever watchful and responsive to my moods or energy shifts. Though he sometimes made it difficult to appreciate his quirks, we always loved him unconditionally and that love is what I believe made him the great dog he was. He had a happy life here, and I’m so glad we could give that to him. In return, he gave us his all. It seems fitting that I should have him immortalized in some way through my Chronicles of Lily Carmichael trilogy. I’m sure you’ll get to know Zak a little better as you read about Bo and Pappy.