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.
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.
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.