Everybody has their favourite types of characters to write. I tend to lean toward the challenging types–antiheroes and villains, usually. I love figuring them out, and learning what made them who they are and why they act the way they do.
But there’s another type of character I love to write: animals. And they can be just as challenging as antiheroes and villains.
There are a multitude of ways you can write animals, even if you’re writing from the point of view of a human and the animals are only bystanders. If you’re writing a children’s book, for example, your animals are likely to be somewhat hyperbolic versions of themselves. If you’re writing a young adult novel, your animals might be the more realistic pets and beasts that we encounter in our everyday lives.
It’s when you’re writing from the point of view of an animal that things get really interesting. Suddenly, you have to put a lot more thought into how to treat these characters. Are you going to have them behave the same way humans would? Or do you keep them true to how an animal in our world would behave?
I prefer to keep my animals realistic. But I’ve learned that decision comes with a whole slew of other questions that need to be answered before I can start writing. Today, I’d like to share the top three.
How am I going to show my animals’ emotions?
All animals, of course, have their ways of telling humans how they feel. A dog will wag its tail when it’s content, while a rabbit will grind its teeth. Cats arch their backs and hiss when they’re intimidated, while skunks will spray.
What may be more difficult is figuring out how the animals in your story will interact with each other. Do they have a way of communicating in words? Or is their language purely physical? How are you going to handle the limited physical signs of your animals’ emotions? After all, an animal’s face can’t necessarily convey all of the same expressions as a human’s could. Or will your animals be built with the ability to do so?
How do my animals see the world differently than their human counterparts?
What you see when you look around your living room is entirely different than what your pets see when they look around.
There are multiple ways of interpreting this. A cat may be looking down at the room from the top of a bookshelf. A mouse could be looking up at a mountain of a couch. Or a goldfish’s view may be skewed because of its tank.
But there are also differences in how animals interpret the world around them. Take colours, for example. Dogs’ eyes can’t see as many colours as a human’s can, while other animals can see more. Geckos can move their eyes to see a full 360 degrees around them, and certain species of insects have extra sets of eyes to allow them to react to movement much more quickly than humans.
Scents, too, can have more of an effect on animals than they do on humans. A dog’s nose is almost a thousand times more sensitive to smells than a human’s is. They’re going to pick up on things like food, other animals, and even water much more quickly than your human characters would.
How do my animals move?
The muscular system of an animal isn’t like that of a human. Many animals can jump higher than a human could, some are far more flexible, and others need to wear down their teeth. When they’re moving through the world, all of these are going to affect how they interact with what’s around them. A rabbit may stop to nibble on a stick, while a squirrel would leap from branch to branch.
Speed, too, may be a factor. Cats are fairly agile, so they may move through their day more easily than a bear would. Or a dog might be so full of energy that the day just seems to drag on.
These, of course, aren’t the only questions you’ll need to ask yourself. But the exact questions will depend on your story and its world. Once you’ve figured out how the world you’re writing works, you’ll be able to figure out how your characters will behave.
And remember, just like humans, your animals will have rules they need to follow. If you’re consistent in those rules, I know you’ll develop animals that are just as diverse, expressive, and dimensional as their human counterparts.