Fur Friends in Fiction

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.

Until then, what do you think about animals in fiction? 

32 thoughts on “Fur Friends in Fiction”

  1. Your Zak sounds like my Blue, who I lost in June at the age of 13. I wrote him into my Lonestar Cowboys series because he was such a fiercely protective and loyal companion. I still think about him all the time, but it’s comforting to know he will live on in my stories.

    1. That’s very cool, Tori. It makes me happy, too, that Zak will be part of this trilogy in some way. I have two more books to write and I’ll be thinking of him all the while as I share the adventures of my wolf characters. Thanks for stopping by and sharing about your dog, Blue. They are all so special.

  2. I am so sorry to hear about Zak. He was a sweet boy and I will miss seeing him at your house! Hugs to you and hubby.

    I have used animals in my books and several them were based on pets either still with me or who have passed on. I admit, when authors use animals in their books I do get distracted worrying about their fate.

  3. Oh, PJ, I’m so sorry about Zak. My heart goes out to you guys.

    I never thought about including a dog in my first few books: it was just a natural and obvious part of life, given that I’ve always had dogs myself. Can’t imagine life without them, and when our dear Digger died, I could only last 10 days before I needed another pal. I’m sure it’s no mistake that Willow looks a lot like him. Guess I have a type. : )

    Hang in there, buddy.

    1. Thanks Kristan. I know how you love your pups and nobody writes them better as characters. I grew up with a golden lab mix named Twiggy who I had to have put down when I was sixteen. I didn’t have another dog for over ten years, but finally adopted a stray who we later lost to a car accident. When Zak came along, I knew he was “the one.” It took me a little time before I realized he looked much like my dog Twiggy, and I felt like I got a second chance to offer a life to that soul. It could be that we do indeed, have a “type” we are attracted to, but I believe animals find their owners and not the other way around.

  4. What a great post and tribute to Zak. I’m so sorry for your loss and I know how that feels. I’m a sucker for any book that incorporates animals and since they are such a big part of my life, I think their place in books is quite fitting. Many people have pets and yet they aren’t written into novels that often. Good for you for doing that.

    1. Thanks Patti, I know how much you love animals. Your tireless efforts on their behalf doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. Thank you for the condolences. I hope I do the wolves justice:-)

  5. I love that you put animals in your stories. I would not be who I am without all the animals in my life. They have helped mold me, and that should be the same for our characters, too.

    God’s peace to you, my friend.

    1. Thank you, Katy. I’m feeling that love and peace today sent from all of my wonderful friends and family. You guys are the best.

      I wanted to add pets to my stories early on, but couldn’t figure out how to do it seamlessly without the animal character taking over the story or being a distraction. Who wants to read about feeding the dog or taking him out for his morning constitutional? When I write an animal into my stories I try to set it up so that they are a peripheral part of the story. They aren’t necessarily on the page a lot or part of my character’s every day life, but they come into play when my heroine needs them or when they can add to character depth.

    1. Thanks Kate. Zak was a love, but boy was he a handful if you tried to do anything he didn’t like or he saw another animal. His vet visits consisted of him having to be knocked out to have his exam, shots, nails clipped, teeth cleaned…the works once a year. We were lucky he was such a healthy guy, because he was nearly impossible to work with unless he was totally out. Somewhere along the line, he decided that he wanted no part of being muzzled. He definitely would not have been a good candidate for any kind of rehabilitation, so it’s for the best that he is freed from having to endure any more trauma. Remind me to tell you about the time my husband and I had to remove a dozen porcupine quills from his chin…oh, boy…talk about trauma. my husband and I were a wreck, LOL

  6. Sorry to hear you’ve just lost ZaK!

    I love animals in stories. Animals are in our lives, it just makes sense they should be in our stories too. I have two stories with animals. One is a YA where my young hero finds this neglected dog soon after his mother died. They bound immediately.

    In another story, a historical, my heroine is attached to her mare. Together, they crossed England to safety. It’s an emotional scene when the villain kills her horse.

    Great post.

    1. Thanks Carole. I think one of the reasons we become more invested in stories that have beloved animals is that we naturally worry for their safety. They don’t have a voice and most of us intuitively feel protective toward animals in danger. In traditional publishing one of the somewhat unspoken rules is that you can’t have an animal die. It’s too distressing to readers and might detract from their having a positive experience with your book. But I think if it’s done well and draws the reader into an emotional connection to the hero/heroine because of their shared love of animals, it can be effective. Using it as a tool to make the reader hate the villain that much more is also a clever device.

      Kristan Higgins has a pooch die in one of her books, but it isn’t a shock to the reader. You see the dog is aging and is probably not long for this world and there is a very peaceful passing that any dog owner could appreciate. It also opens up the door for that added emotional connection when the hero brings her a new puppy at the end. Kudos once again to Kristan for pulling it off:-)

  7. PJ, so sorry to hear that you and your family have lost Zak. My heart goes out to you. It’s so hard to part with them because they become a beloved part of the family. You have my deepest sympathy.

    1. Thank you, Gerri. I was glad that my son, AJ was with me to say goodbye. I brought Zak home as a puppy when my boys were thirteen and nineteen after I had just gone through a divorce and had disrupted their lives by moving out of our house and into a condo. Zak became our dog and the glue that put us back together as a family. The three of us working together to train and care for him gave us a common goal and I always referred to Chris and AJ as Zak’s “brothers.”

      My boys have both been away from home for several years, but AJ in particular, because he lives relatively close by, has been a steady caretaker any time I go on vacation or we have to be away for a few days. The boys will definitely miss seeing their “brother” when they come to visit. Although I always said that I was “Zak’s person,” my son Chris reminded me yesterday of how Zak pooped all over the house for three days when Chris went away to school. They definitely had a special connection:-)

  8. Hi PJ, know that my heart aches for you and your family. Losing one of our four legged family members is never easy.

    I have to agree with Kristan, pets are just a natural part of family life to me. I can’t remember a time when our house wasn’t overrun with them (except for my year in Italy, during which I greatly missed ours). So to incorporate them into our stories just seems like an essential element and I love reading how the hero or heroine relates them. To me, it gives us another insight to their personality.

    1. Thanks so much and I absolutely agree, Gail. Animals see through all of our barriers and pretense. Having their perspective is a great way to give depth to a character by showing how they interact with the pets in their lives. Thank you for stopping in and lending your support. So much appreciated!

  9. Sorry about Zak, PJ. He was beautiful and sounds like a wonderful friend.

    I love animals in stories and add them where ever I can. My story Shadowed Trust has a raccoon written like the one we had for a summer while growing up. He becomes buddies with the hero, even though the hero isn’t looking for a buddy at the time.

    Hugs to you and hubby as you miss your friend!

    1. Thanks for the hugs, Stacey. ALL animals have a personality if you spend time with them and get to know them. A raccoon is an awesomely creative buddy for a hero. They have that “bandit” mystique, partly because of the mask they wear and also because of their scavenging nature.

  10. Your Zak sounds like Beauty, the German Shepherd I had as a child. She was so sweet, loyal and protective – the best companion ever! Recently we lost Oscar, a little chihuahua with a big heart. I hated to see him go at 13. I know I will need to write them both in a book some day.

  11. So sorry to hear you lost your beloved pet! I’ve lost my share, and dread the day when my current little pack reaches the end of their journey.

    Like you, I also include animals in my stories. I write romance and cozy mysteries, and I also write books about my dogs. 🙂 I think including my characters’ pets demonstrates a great deal about their character. Lovely blog.

    1. Thank you, Regina. Pets are definitely a reflection of their people and can give you an added glimpse into their character for sure.

  12. My Pu-kie was the 20 pound protector of the house. When he passed away, we had him cremated and put his ashes in a urn by the door so he could continue to protect it. I then wrote a book where the ghost of the heros little dog dies saving the hero when the boy is 12. And then the ghost continues to protect him and plays match maker until the end of the book.

    It did a lot to help me though the loss.

    1. Oh, Christine, what a neat story. Thanks for sharing. We did bury Zak here on the property and I will be sure to mark his spot with something fitting to remember him by. I’ll surely be thinking of him as I write books two and three in the trilogy and it will be nice to reminisce about all of his quirks and antics as I develop Bo and Pappy’s characters. Thanks for commenting.

  13. Sorry to hear about your dog, Zak. Anyone who has ever loved a pet knows how hard it is to lose them. They are a huge part of our lives. I gave one of the characters in my second Noon Onyx book a fury friend. I love how the fury friend — a character in his own right — turned out. We’ll see what he looks like after edits! 🙂

  14. Thank you, Jill. I appreciate the condolences.

    I’m finding as I write my wolf characters that just as with human characters, each time i make a pass through the story, I add to their layers. A whine, a bark, a tilt of the head, a cocking of the ear–all nuances of their character that make them come alive on the page. It’s really fun showing their personality without having any dialogue. It’s definitely a lesson in show vs. tell:-)

  15. I’m so sorry about Zak. My beloved kitty went missing last year. He was a bit older, so he may have gone on his way to pass privately. It’s hard when we have to let them go.

    I love animals in fiction, as long as they’re written well. I haven’t much tried my hand at it yet. I guess I’m nervous about bringing it all together, as you say. I may give it a try when I’m finished with my current WIP.

  16. A few days ago I added a ‘furry friend’ to one of my stories. This is something I haven’t done before, so it was interesting to come across the post just as I did. The animal isn’t from this world and I’m looking forward to seeing the dynamic between my main protagonist and her new pet. Great post :).

  17. So sorry to hear about Zak. (I saw this post while on the train last week and tried to respond via my smartphone, but I guess the technology wasn’t working too well.) Thanks for a great post and as every pet owner knows, pets are all unique and sorely missed when it is time for them to leave us.

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