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Crafting Animal Characters like an Expert

Whether your work-in-progress features a witch's familiar, a talking animal sidekick, or a companion pet, WD editor Moriah Richard gives you the basics on how to create an animal character.

I’ll admit it: I was disappointed by Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Now, I’m not going to dive into all my complaints, which would be pointless and also uninteresting. Instead, I’m going to focus on a particular let-down: Salem.

(5 Tricks Animal Writers Should Know)

For those who are unfamiliar (ha!), Salem is Sabrina’s animal familiar. In European traditions, familiars were thought to be a supernatural entity that assisted witches or folk healers with their magic. In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Salem is not the snarky/goofy character he was in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Instead, he is an agent of hell who can shapeshift from an adorable house cat into a ghoulish terror at will.

Creepy. And awesome.

But instead of learning anything about familiars, how they work, how they assist their witches, etc., Salem’s character fades into the background of the show and only reappears when they need him for one plot point or another. It was disappointing, to say the least. Why play into the trope at all if you’re not going to use it?

All this to say, in this article, I want to talk about incorporating animal characters into your story effectively.

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Give Them Purpose

If you’ve decided to incorporate some kind of animal sidekick into your story, you should have a preliminary idea about what they’re doing there. For example, if you’re dealing with a high fantasy tribal culture where young children are given an animal to raise and hunt with, you know that your character will need to train and use their animal in that fashion. And if that’s your starting point, there are some really great places to jump off from.

To make it simple, here are four ways to explore an animal’s purpose in your story. Of course, your character’s animal could be a combination of any of these or none of them—each story is individual and unique!

As a Tool

In the world I described above, the animal is used as a hunting tool, but there are many other ways that animals can serve their masters. They can be used for transportation (like Nailah the lionaire in Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi or Roach the horse in the Witcher series), communication (like owls in the Harry Potter series), or as helpers/guides (like Jiji in the 1989 Hayao Miyazaki film Kiki’s Delivery Service). In these instances, there’s a need that’s being filled by the animal’s partnership.

As a Weapon

There might be some overlap here from the previous category. If your animal is trained to accomplish a task for your character, they might be able to also jump into a fight if they’re needed—Nailah from Children of Blood and Bone is a really great example of this. But there can also be a long history of animals being used as weapons, like in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. If your animal’s purpose is to help your character with hunting, battles, etc., it’s important to dive into the mechanics of that so you understand the context of the relationship between animal and handler (even if the backstory doesn’t all make it into your story).

(Caitlin O'Connell: Finding Connection and Community in Animal Rituals)

As a Companion

It’s totally okay for your animals to simply be a companion for your characters! We have pets in our world; why can’t there also be pets in our fictional worlds? A good example of this is Spider in The Woman in Black. While the little dog was also used to heighten tension when supernatural events were occurring, he was given to the narrator as a companion and functioned as such during the story. But beware! If you decide to include an animal companion, be sure that they don’t get forgotten or left out of the narrative once the plot begins to thicken.

As Something Else

Not all animals need to be bound by the laws of the natural world—we’re discussing genre fiction, after all! If your story has elements of magic, it may very well be that you’re constructing a world in which the animal isn’t actually an animal at all. Salem only looked like a cat in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina; he could shape-shift into his actual form and even communicate with the witches in the show. Likewise, in the His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, dæmon were meant to be the outer reflection of a person’s inner world. They only looked like animals.

Give Them Personality

Anyone who has spent time around animals will tell you this: No two creatures are exactly alike. Animals have distinct personalities, which means they have individual likes and dislikes, can be easy or difficult to train, are generally happy-go-lucky or moody, etc.

It’s important that the animal at your character’s side has a personality just like any other character. This is how the reader comes to know and care about the animal, meaning that you can use them to further the emotional development of the plot. For example, if you’re planning on killing off an animal and it destroys your character’s motivation to complete their journey, we need that relationship to be believable to have an emotional payoff. This means spending time before that fateful encounter showing off the animal’s personality and how the character feels about them.

(How to Use Archetypes in Literature When Creating Characters for Your Novel)

Body Language

There’s no right or wrong way to develop an animal character, but it’s good to keep in mind that you might need to rely a lot on body language. While universes like His Dark Materials feature animals that can speak verbally, there’s still a need to focus on how they communicate with your non-animal characters. Do they have a nervous tick? If they don’t use verbal language (or don’t only use verbal language), what kind of sounds do they make when they’re excited, angry, or confused? In diving into the physicality of your animal character, you make them tangible for the reader. I’ve spent hours falling into the rabbit hole of YouTube, watching videos about animals that I’m writing about just to see how they move, how they eat, how they express themselves.

In your first draft, you might notice that a lot of this develops as you’re writing. That’s totally okay! The more we get into our character’s heads, the more we understand them. That’s normal. Instead of going back and trying to add things while you’re still drafting, just make a note of the new quirk for your second draft. For example, I have a note on page 123 of my work-in-progress that says simply, “Qrixis hates the rain.” When I tackle my next draft, I’ll make sure to include this detail the first time it rains, so it’s not surprising when it becomes a problem for my heroes later on—and it doesn’t slow my forward progress.

No matter what kind of animal appears in your story, if you want your audience to care about them, it’s important that they function as a character. This means spending time in the story developing their personality and their relationship with your non-animal characters.

General Questions for Further Exploration

  • Is your animal character filling a need for your main character?
  • Does the animal serve a broader societal need or are they a sign of your character’s status (for example, wealthy people have motorized vehicles while less wealthy people rely on animals for transportation)?
  • How does your character feel about using animals as tools or weapons? Do they view their relationship as a partnership or ownership?
  • What is the broader societal feeling about animals? Are they generally treated with indifference (like a piece of furniture) or are they considered vital members of the community?
  • What are they doing when they’re not serving their purpose? Where are they kept/what is their life like?
  • How do the characters get these animals (bred, captured, built, born from magic, etc.)?
  • When do these relationships form, and are they important to the person’s upbringing (like a coming-of-age ceremony)?
  • What would happen to the animal if their handler died?
  • What emotional purpose does this animal serve for your reader?
  • What are they doing when they’re not with their owner? Where are they kept/what is their life like?
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