So You Wanna Use a Pet in Fiction?

Shadow and Interceptor from Final Fantasy

Shadow and Interceptor from Final Fantasy

Long ago, I remember playing a D&D game where our group had several pets.  There was a bear who ended up being killed by a goblin firing squad.  Two wolves that were killed because the player kept demanding we heal their injuries even after we did all we could.  A mountain lion that my Monk left at home when he saw the fate of the other pets.  Let’s just say pets are not that easy to put into a game or a story.  Here are some tips:

  1. For the love of all that is holy, have the pet make sense.  Even if it’s a dragon or a three-headed marmoset, you need to make it clear how the character has the thing tamed.  Normal pets can be explained easily since we’re used to those.  The more exotic critters may need a touch of back story.  Especially if the same animal can show up as a monster.
  2. Remember that they’re in the story.  One of the mistakes I made in the first draft of Beginning of a Hero is not giving much time to Stiletto the dog.  He wasn’t really around and I kept ignoring him, so his big scene fell flat.  The easy thing about a pet in a book is that you don’t need to do much.  Honestly, they really only have to be in a scene and interact with their owner.  Bring them up in conversation too and it reveals the bond.
  3. If they aren’t battle-oriented then keep them out of a fight.  Wizards with familiars is one thing since the animal gives them strength.  A warrior with a wolf that obeys his orders makes sense since that’s a fighting system.  Having a knight carry his pet parakeet into a war . . . that thing better do something impressive.
  4. Give them some method of showing mood.  This goes for all animal characters because they can’t talk.  Facial expressions, non-word sounds, and tail movements are all methods of communication for them.  It helps to do a little research on how each animal communicates.  If you’re working with a fictional beast then try to find a real world equivalent to examine.  For example, study hawks and lions to create the way a griffin shows emotions and thoughts.
  5. If the pet is big enough for the character to ride then have them do it.  Unless the creature lacks the temperament.  Seriously, riding a bear into battle is a great idea as long as Mr. Grizzly isn’t prone to eating his rider.  Again, give reasons/explanations for certain beast’s taming.
  6. Personal opinion:  If you don’t have the courage to harm an animal in fiction then don’t put them in dangerous positions.  A pet that follows a warrior has a high risk of getting caught in a fight.  Be careful creating an animal companion if you think you’ll have it survive every extremely dangerous encounter unscathed.

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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26 Responses to So You Wanna Use a Pet in Fiction?

  1. Good advice. You did a great job with Stiletto to the point I was very sorry for Luke’s loss. I suffer so much when my own pets need to leave that I am helpless in writing about it.

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  2. C.E.Robinson says:

    Charles, great info! I have a pet in my WIP, and it’s my constant companion & protector. I’ll pay more attention to her presence as the story progresses. Thanks. Christine

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  3. Great information! Thanks, Charles! ❤

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  4. L. Marie says:

    I laughed out loud at the knight carrying a parakeet. 🙂 That would be hilarious at least. Still, a knight with a hawk would be fun.
    This is where I have failed miserably. I unfortunately didn’t have many pets growing up, because my parents weren’t animal lovers. I’m trying to work some pets into my story without running into the inappropriate knight-with-a-parakeet situation. So I really needed your advice. I love the idea of a still half-wild creature who could attack someone. That brings tension.

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    • Eh, knights with hawks have been done. I say a knight with an attack toucan or a combat kiwi. 😀

      I only had fish, turtles (disaster!), and hamsters when I was a kid. Space and allergies prevented the bigger animals from being an option. Pets can always come later in a character creation. They tend to fall more into ‘quirk’ than character unless they are plot central.

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      • L. Marie says:

        i would love to see the attack toucan!
        We had fish when I was growing up and also a turtle that didn’t live long. My main character has a betta fish. I had one a few years ago. Three years I had that fish until some well-meaning neighbors fed the poor thing to death while I was on vacation.

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      • Not sure how a betta fish can be brought into battle. Maybe a tank made of enchanted glass attached to the shield?

        It was always weird with fish. They’d last a while and then something out of Final Destination would happen while we were away.

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  5. Rachel says:

    All great advice. To be honest, I’ve never included a pet in any of my work. I’ve thought about it, but a pet just never seems to fit in quite right.

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  6. Kev says:

    Brilliant advice and some I will most definitely be adhering too in my fantasy sequel since I plan on using my two lovely little boys (cats) in it… they will be much larger and better skilled, however. 😉 😀

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  7. Love your no. 2 advice.:Remember that they’re in the story. LOL. We do take our pets for granted at times, don’t we. 🙂
    I loved this post, Charles…very original and informative. Pets figure in so many books yet there’s very little (none?) writing advice on how to include them in our writing. 🙂 Thanks for your tips!

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    • We definitely do that in real life and fiction. I think it’s hard to remember them when you write an adventure tale and they aren’t an obvious combat creature.

      I wonder why there aren’t many pieces of advice for pet writing. People probably work off their own experiences and leave it at that.

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  8. Great topic. I have animals in almost every story. I think they provide some nice moments and author advantages too.

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  9. sknicholls says:

    Good info. I dropped my character getting a dog. I was afraid he wouldn’t have time to give it the attention it needed and I didn’t want to disappoint all those dog lovers out there. People can be brutal with authors when pets get neglected or put in harms way. I just read a book where the protagonist had a pet tarantula. That helped her sort of goth, loner image, without making too much work for the story.

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    • I’ve noticed that about people and pets. It’s probably safer to kill a human than an animal. Even if their survival is completely ridiculous, some readers refuse to acknowledge that an animal can die in fiction. I like the tarantula idea. You tend to see that for goths and tough bullies. Those and scorpions.

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  10. Pingback: Pets in fiction | Entertaining Stories

  11. Nice reminder. It made me think of Captain Flint, John Silver’s green parrot, which not only could “swear straight on, passing belief for wickedness,” but also served as the buccaneers’ sentry, when they took over the blockhouse.

    I hadn’t thought of analyzing the use of animals in my writing. In my first novel, my family’s three cats were combined into one, in a literary cameo as the pet that helped a child recover from being stolen from his family and placed in an industrial school. I also involved animals in other ways: by recycling my experience with keeping goats and chickens, as part of a character’s background; and another character was a dairy farmer, who praised his cows because “they’re good at keeping secrets!”

    Animals can play as many different roles in fictional people’s lives as they do in reality.

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    • Forgot about the parrot. Been far too long since I read that story. Very true that animals can play different roles in fiction, which is very much like real life. I don’t have much experience with caring for animals, so it’s very cool that you have that background to pull from.

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