How To Use Animals as Characters, by Judy Pierce

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Using Animals as Characters

By Judy Pierce

Yesterday, Random hosted an interview with Judy and over 270 visitors stopped by to read her interview. Impressive! Click HERE if you’d like to read it. Today, Judy is sharing tips on how to use animals as characters in your stories. Please welcome Judy.

I’m hardly an expert at this, but have written a number of stories over the last few years featuring Ozette, a white squirrel, and my first MG novel, Tales from Farlandia: Ozette’s Destiny, was recently published by Pants on Fire Press.

None of what I am going to say should be taken as gospel. This is just the approach I’ve tried to take. I’m still in learning mode – and always will be.

Know your animals. Read about them and observe them firsthand if you can. If, for example, you have a Scottish Terrier as a main character, learn as much as you can about the habits, behavior, quirks, etc. of the breed. While each animal is an individual, they share some common traits. For example, you might want to reconsider including scenes that include a lot of water activities, as Scottish Terriers are notorious for sinking like rocks! If your character is an exception, let us know why. I pushed the envelope with Ozette a bit in the chapter Up the Creek with a Paddle, but squirrels can swim – it’s just not their exercise of choice.

I worked with a wildlife rehabber for several years and spent a lot of time observing squirrels on my own. Although Ozette is an animated squirrel, she is a squirrel none the less. Although I had observed squirrels up close and personal (sometimes carting babes around in my sweatshirt and having them try to nurse on me) I still did research.

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For example, my editor questioned me when I wrote “On this sun-drenched spring morning, she was stretched out on a fat branch of her massive maple tree picking bits of pecan from her teeth by chewing on a twig like her grandmother had taught her, using the fiber as squirrely dental floss.” Yes, squirrels do engage in this behavior although I suspect it is from innate knowledge and not from visits to a squirrel dentist! But it was fun weaving a fact about squirrels into the story.

I didn’t want my characters to seem like humans with fur, and that can be tough. I tried to give each animal a distinct personality, whether it was the rather prissy and proud but ultimately sweet-natured Bichon Frise, Duchess Zorina or the fun-loving golden retriever, Cassady.

Sometimes you can add a fact about an animal that reminds your readers that they may talk, but they are still animals. For example, I wrote: Her brain may have only been the size of a walnut, but it was fast and creative.

By observing your animals, you can weave their distinct species’ traits into the story, hopefully successfully.

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On several occasions, my editor at Pants on Fire Press asked me to flesh out one of the characters – even minor ones – “tell us more about how he looks, feels acts.” So it was a balancing act between fleshing out a character and having it behave in a way that a squirrel or mouse or dog would act. You just don’t want to get so bogged down in details that the book drags.

As in all writing, try to show not tell. Instead of saying Ozette is upset with Oliver the elf, have Ozette put one paw on her hip, frown, then scurry up her tree and throw her entire stash of acorns at him. He will get the point! (Ozette would never give up her stash of acorns – I made this up)

In the book, instead of saying the maid was surprised when she saw Duchess Zorina and Ozette at the door, I wrote: “Oh my! Duchess Zorina!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air and dropping the mop and bucket on the marble entryway floor with a splash and a crash.

Whenever you find yourself saying something like “He felt (emotion) or looked (emotion) try to describe what he did to portray that feeling. It brings your writing alive and draws your reader into the story.

To read more about Judy’s book click HERE.

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What do you like about this cover? 

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  1. This was so much fun to read! 😀 Ozette looks adorable on that book cover. I write a lot of fantasy, so I’m very glad for the creativity it leaves me with. Every writer has a different take on unicorns so I can make them do whatever I want to do. I wrote a NaNoWriMo story once about a squirrel named Nutty and a chipmunk named Chippy. I wrote it when I was nine and it needs a TON of editing, though I haven’t ever gone back to it.

    Thanks for the awesome post (as usual)! 😀

    • Hi Kate-
      How’s the writing going? Agent hunting?
      I need to introduce you to another awesome teen writer, Drew Carson. He’ll be posting something this Friday. He has a huge imagination like you do, and is super smart. He works a lot at Have you been there? Introduce yourself to him on Friday if you can.

    • Thanks for your note, Kate. Yes, I like writing fantasy for the same reason – I can bend reality anyway I want to within certain broad limits. I am delighted that you write fantasy, and I hope you will go back to your squirrel and chipmunk story with fresh eyes and complete it. My next book will have three chipmunks in it – Harley, Beemer and Suzuki. I named them for three baby chipmunks we raised one spring. They were little speedsters for sure!

      • I will for sure! 😀 And I love the name Suzuki! That’s actually the violin method I use in my lessons: The Suzuki Method. 😉

  2. Vie says:

    Thanks for another great post, Judy and Michelle!

  3. Robin says:

    Thanks for the tips! I love how you were able to apply your personal knowledge to make your character come alive. She sounds very feisty.

    • I love the name Suzuki too. There is a wonderful environmental video called “Suzuki Speaks” but I actually named the chipmunks after motorcycles because they were such fast and agile little daredevils.

      Robin, thank you for your kind comments and to all of you who shared your thoughts.

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