Photo of Wilbur (back) and Clouseau (front), my cats. Photo by Kate Ota 2019
Readers often love pets included in books, like Harry Potter’s Hedwig or Magnus Bane’s Chairman Meow. But when a pet isn’t written well, it can distract readers—or worse, distress them! Here are my top tips for writing pets into your stories.
1. Don’t forget you included a pet
Famously, Hedwig isn’t in the seventh Harry Potter book beyond the first few chapters. In the final draft, it’s because Hedwig is killed during Harry’s escape from Privet Drive. But Rowling admitted that when drafting, she simply forgot to include Hedwig. Now it’s an anecdote, and a world famous writer like Rowling doesn’t really need to worry about that kind of mistake. But you, dear reader, are less likely to have a team of editors behind you at the moment. So, if you give your MC a pet, make sure it’s established early on and continues through the story.
2. Keep a pet’s schedule in mind
If your main character gets kidnapped and doesn’t go home for several days, your readers will worry about the pet. Lots of people are dog and/or cat lovers, and thinking about a cat not fed or a dog not let out for days will depress the reader. So before inserting a pet into the story, make sure the fictional creature will not be neglected. Not familiar with pet schedules? Research the breed of cat/dog or the species of other small animal to understand their needs including feeding, toilet, grooming, sleeping/hibernating, and exercise needs.
3. Use the pet to show character
The choice of pet says a lot about a person. Runners may choose an athletic dog. Introverts may adopt an elderly cat. Maybe someone in a dangerous land would have a large, protective dog, while someone in a tiny apartment may select a hamster. You should consider what this pet brings to the story and what it can demonstrate about your character’s life. This also applies to the pet’s name, which often stays with a reader more than breed. A goofy pun, a pop culture reference, a quirky word, or a serious human name—they all say different things about the character who chose the name.
4. Use the pet as a sounding board
Some characters spend a lot of time alone. Maybe they’re shy, new to town, or maybe it’s a function of their job. But you want scenes that aren’t all internal narration, for the sake of the reader. One method is to have the character think aloud and speak to their pet. It makes more sense that just speaking aloud alone. And it can be revealing, as the pet not responding can draw more out of the character.
5. If it’s a service animal, do your research
Some characters will have service animals, whether a traditional guide dog for the blind or a more specialized animal, like a dog that can sense seizures approaching. If you include one of these very awesome animals, be sure to research the rules. Does it need a special harness to let others know what it’s doing? What is it trained to do exactly? What are the rules of caring for a service animal? It’s going to vary by its training, so take the time to research it.
Those are my top tips for writing a pet into your story. Do you have any more ideas? Did you find these helpful? Let’s discuss in the comments!