So You’re Going to Give Your Character a Pet

Drizzt and Guenhwyvar from R.A. Salvatore's books.

Drizzt and Guenhwyvar from R.A. Salvatore’s books.

So, you want to use a pet in your story.  Good idea.  There’s a long tradition of helpful animal companions of both natural and magical varieties.  It all comes down to what you want you’re looking for.  Here are some tips to get you started and know what to do with them:

  1. You can’t go wrong with a dog.  Even Riddick has a dog now.  The thing about dogs are that they’re loyal and come in a variety of shapes.  You can do a lot with a dog because of how they act in real life.
  2. You can go wrong with a cat.  Wild cats like tigers and panthers seem to work for primal characters like barbarians.  They can come in magical varieties too.  Sadly, a house cat might not work out too well for all characters.  Something to consider is that many villains have cats like Skeletor and Blofeld.  Although, He-Man has a cat too, so you can do whatever you want there.
  3. Birds are popular among thieves and wizards.  When dealing with birds, you need to remember coloration.  A brightly colored parrot can work for a pirate, but not a shadow-loving thief.  Wizards tend to have a bird with colors that mimic their temperament.  Owls and ravens are used because of their intelligence and wisdom.  I can neither recommend or speak against the use of an ostrich as a mount.
  4. Horses are second to dogs in terms of use because they appear in many genres.  Cowboys and adventurers use them as well as romantic characters out for a trip through the countryside.  Best part about a horse is that you can get some unique reactions from them.  They are very emotive and sensitive animals, so you can make them react more acutely than dogs.
  5. Fish . . . yeah . . . you better be writing about mermaids or Aquaman.  Fish don’t do well outside of the water.
  6. Large animals such as bears and elephants.  Go right ahead, but you better have some reasoning behind such things being tamed.  Also, they can’t be stabled like normal animals.  You need to factor that in before going this route.  Think it’s easy to get a giraffe into a horse stable?  It isn’t any easier getting it out.
  7. Rodents are an unusual choice.  Again, you find them more with thieves and wizards, but also with children.  Mice, ferrets, and rabbits are popular among children stories because they are less common than dogs and cats.  These animals tend to be caged, especially the mice.  You might be able to get away with a free range rabbit or ferret if you explain it easily.
  8. Use apes and monkeys at your own risk.  By that I mean expect to be sued by the ghost of Edgar Rice Burroughs if you’re not careful.
  9. Magical creatures can be the sky’s the limit, but that’s part of the danger.  Sure, your character can be riding a dragon and destroying everyone.  Where is the threat and why is such a powerful beast listening to a human?  Especially if you do this in the first book and the dragon is obedient to an untested character.  It’s best to have this relationship grow within the book and over time.  Think of it as a subplot as long as the dragon doesn’t eat the hero immediately.  That would a quick end to the book and mean the dragon isn’t a pet.
  10. Bats are cool.  I like bats.

There you have it.  It’s really up in the air about pets in literature because you can go in a lot of directions.  The key here is to make them important.  You can make them the main plot, give them a chapter or section on their own, or any number of ideas.  To give them impact, they have to be around for events.  Those events will shape them.  Giving them roles in both action and downtime scenes increases their connection to their master.  Who knows?  The pet character might end up being the unsung hero in your story.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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53 Responses to So You’re Going to Give Your Character a Pet

  1. Papi Z says:

    Interesting. What about Hummingbirds? What is your advice regarding a Hummingbird? I am thinking of having a super sized Hummingbird with battle armor and kung fu talons. 😀

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  2. tjtherien says:

    I’ve gone with a wolf… not so much as a pet but as a companion and is probably a character in his own right. their relationship is a mutual one as survival in a pre historic world was difficult for both man and beast and both were by circumstances forced to face the world alone… I believe the wolf or wild dog were probably among the first animals domesticated because of their use in hunting which predates agriculture and the keeping of livestock. But in the case of my story true domestication of animals has not occurred…

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    • I like the sound of that. A pet that isn’t really a pet by our modern definition. I’d imagine the wolf is bigger than modern wolves.

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      • tjtherien says:

        the wolf is still a juvenile, no longer a pup but not fully grown yet… but he was the runt of the litter and the only one to survive because the main character didn’t know how to take care of wolf pups and he had killed their mother, although the mother of the pups was all ready badly injured…

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      • Interesting how the runt survived and the others didn’t. Is this a prehistoric story? I know you said it’s complicated, but I’m trying to get a clear visual.

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      • tjtherien says:

        yup the story begins in the stone age… the runt survived because while the other pups were trying to nurse on the dead mother the kept the runt away, thus the runt explored the cave where the boy had brought pups and the dead mother. the other pups just never left their mothers side and died the runt ate scraps from the boy while the other pups refused;.. a little twist in the story the pup was eventually fed meat that was once his mother…

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      • I think I find that twist a little humorous only because I was reading about the Donner Party this morning.

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  3. howanxious says:

    Yes, one needs to be careful while devising such characters, especially when their book is focused on the human characters and not particularly the lives of pets who can talk to each other.
    Interesting suggestions… I liked Crookshanks from the Harry Potter series, who had quite an important role in the third book.

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    • As only having watched the movies, I tend to forget about the cat. I forget about the familiars in general because they seemed like afterthoughts for most of the series. One thing I never figured out, why did most of the adults (or all of them?) not have familiars? Do wizards grow out of them?

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  4. MishaBurnett says:

    Hurm… Most of my characters are way too self-centered to be trusted with the care of an animal–but now I’ve got my time-traveling driver to work on. Maybe I’ll give her a pet. Something small, that can ride in her car with her. A ferret, perhaps? I think fiction today needs more time-traveling ferrets.

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  5. Wanderer says:

    I really enjoyed the idea of the “daemons” in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Firstly because it was different than anything I read before and I liked the idea that with children their daemons could constantly change shape and didn’t become “anchored” to one shape until the children reached adulthood.

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    • I totally forgot about that, which is sad because the first book was a few feet away from me when I wrote this. The soul animal is a unique and interesting take. I use something similar in one of my books. I have to think about this as a Friday post.

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      • Wanderer says:

        I couldn’t read past the second book…I thought the first was great but after finishing the second I had no desire to read further, which was sad. I haven’t read anything else with a soul animal quiet like Pullman. Although, there are some familiars that are similar, I suppose. The Farseer trilogy has an interesting take, too.

        I’m really glad you posted this. I have a character with a wild animal as a “pet” and I’m having to examine if it’s really crucial to the story or if I just want to write about a cool animal.

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      • I muscled my way through the trilogy. I barely remember the details of books 2 and 3. They were a little preachy at times and I remember a dimension cutting weapon. That’s really it.

        The closest thing I can think of with soul animals are the Patronuses (Patroni?) from Harry Potter. Sometimes you can simply put a cool animal in and see where it goes. In my first book, I the main character had a dog and the poor thing did barely anything. I went through adding it in the background to the scenes where I could slip him in.

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      • Wanderer says:

        I forgot about the Patronusesseseses….er….anyway.

        And yes—agreed on Pullman. I do have some plot points planned where the animal is crucial…but I could also remove them. I guess it’s not bad to operate on the theory that you can always edit things out!

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      • That method of operation saves my butt a lot.

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  6. twixie13 says:

    Most definitely agree with #10. And I don’t think my characters tend to have pets. Instead, a number of them are part-animal themselves (three monkey/human hybrids, complete with prehensile tails and opposable toes, two cat/human..again, complete with tail/ears, and one that’s got dog ears, a tail, and large bird-like wings). Thinking about it, it might feel a bit weird for any of them to have pets.

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  7. tyroper says:

    My favorite mount in WoW was a prehistoric raptor. I was a bull. Bull on a bird. Awesomeness.

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  8. jmcobbrn says:

    Reblogged this on Juliana Writes and commented:
    I’m reblogging this because of the important information it contains. Pets in books are spectacular. Every book should have some kind of pet somewhere.

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  9. sknicholls says:

    This was so timely. I am flagging this to read later in more detail. I am giving my main character in my WIP a dog and looking at the best for his role and personality/lifestyle.

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    • Talk to a breeder or a local shelter to find out the best breed?

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      • sknicholls says:

        The first piece that I ever had published was in 1977 and in a Rod Serling Twilight Zone compilation of ameteur short stories. I was in High School at the time and the story was about an eccentric old lady who loved children, but they were afraid of her. She had 28 cats, and they all lived inside with her. The cats were central. Her death was rather horrific, and her cats ate her. Childless, she leaves the cats her home and her fortune in her Will. I never wrote a story about a dog, but I have dogs, consider myself a dog person, and always wanted to. My book is not about a dog, but I want the main character to have a dog that is moderately large, like a shepherd. It is a crime novel, and I already have several scenes wherein the dog is involved mapped out in my head. I would imagine that I have to take care not have the dog become central though, if I am going to do this.

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      • Shepherds are cool. Stiletto in my book was a shepherd breed. Couldn’t call him German since there’s no Germany in Windemere.

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  10. Robert Heinlein did a great job with cats as pets for characters. The villain has a cat in a few popular movies. But you’re probably right, as they don’t seem too common, and may not fit many characters. (It really gets interesting when you write a scene from the pet’s perspective.)

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  11. quilltwist says:

    Reblogged this on QuillTwist and commented:
    I really think that adding a pet or animal can bring an extra dynamic any type of fiction. Examples of pets of animals as a sort of side kick always stand out in my mind when they’re written well; Nighteyes the wolf in Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man books, Faran the horse in books about Sparhawk by David Eddings and Gwen the Marder (I don’t know the English word) in Cornelia Funke’s Inkworld series.
    Of course the Daemons in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are an example of the use of animals being intrinsic to the plot. I think animals and pets are an essential part of most genres of fiction and to give them character is fun to write as well as to read.

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    • Aldrea Alien says:

      Nighteyes and Faran have to be my favourite animal companions, right alongside practically all the animals in Jennifer Roberson’s Cheysuli series.

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      • quilltwist says:

        I think Nighteyes just gets it for me, but Faran is great for the humour he adds! I’ve not come across the Cheysuli series, would you recommend it?

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      • Aldrea Alien says:

        Faran reminds me of a horse I had for about seven years before old age caught up. Same temperament.

        And I would recommend the Cheysuli series. The animals are more along the lines of Nighteyes and the last book has the most sarcastic panther I’ve ever read.

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  12. Reblogged this on When I Became an Author and commented:
    Very useful-and humorous-advice. Love it!

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  13. sknicholls says:

    Reblogged this on mybrandofgenius and commented:
    Some things to think about if you are adding pets/animals to your stories.

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  14. I love animals and pets, but I’m often really concerned that the animal is going to get hurt and it’s distracting. Kill the cat/dog/bat/fish and I close the book/turn off the movie. That said, I do like the idea of having an animal become the unsung hero. Those are my favorite kind of pets (so long as it isn’t posthumous).

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  15. I don’t like bats. But I’d hang around with Batman!

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  16. L. Marie says:

    I really needed to read this, because I was wondering if I should give my main character a pet. So far, she doesn’t have one. She’s more of a plant person. A bird might work, though.

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