Writing Pets into Stories

Hey, you. Animal lover. Can’t stand the thought of writing a story without a pet? That’s fine, but it has to be done right and for the right reason. The fact that a particular publisher or agent loves pets in novels isn’t a good enough reason.

Having a pet in a story can be tricky. You have to make sure it serves a purpose and doesn’t distract from the main story. And you need to ensure the characters don’t neglect poor Spot, forgetting to let him out or feed him—or worse, leaving him alone for days without anyone checking on him. This often happens if the story doesn’t really need the pet, which is why the author kind of forgot about little Fluffy for the past hundred pages.

The number one rule when writing pets into a story is to keep the animal alive. Don’t have a character kill the family dog. While killing pets has been done, readers and publishers don’t like it. I’m talking about someone purposely hurting an animal. There are plenty of stories where the pet dies of natural causes or the adults have to put the pet to sleep for medical reasons. Just don’t have someone butcher the cat or toss the hamster into the microwave. Yes, that happens in real life, but we don’t want to read about it.

A pet can add emotion to your story. When the POV (point of view) character interacts with his pet, we get to see a different side of him. How he treats the pet and how much time he spends with it will give us a deeper understanding of his character. But, it’s tough to balance this with what we really need to follow—the plot. Even if we take some time to get to know the character/pet relationship, the story still needs to move forward. You have to layer these interactions in a way that doesn’t stop the main story from progressing.

Another important element to consider when adding pets to a story is that we have to believe you. The pet must be portrayed in such a way that we don’t question whether or not you’ve ever owned or researched this type of pet. We need to feel like the pet is alive and just as three-dimensional as its fictional owners. Janet Evanovich does a good job of this with her Stephanie Plum series and Rex, Stephanie’s hamster. Evanovich’s portrayal was too real. She made me remember what it was like to have hamsters when I was a kid. After reading a couple of those books, I had to buy a teddy bear hamster. I couldn’t help it. I love little, fluffy creatures. While you don’t necessarily need your readers to rush out and buy a new pet, you want them to feel attached to the fictional pet you created. Make the reader need to read more about the pet, its interaction with its owner, the characters, and the story itself.

Have you ever written a pet into a story? What kind of pet was it?

UPDATE: If you’re looking for a substantive or developmental editor, my next two available slots are January 5, 2015 (booked)and February 23, 2015.

What’s a substantive/big picture edit? Read all about it here: http://labelleseditorialservices.com/editorial-services-2/substantive-or-big-picture-editing/.

Lynnette Labelle

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2 Responses to Writing Pets into Stories

  1. I love pets! I have 5, yes five, dogs. Four are related Cavalier King Charles spaniels. I have all four colors and they are all about a year apart. They are my constant companions. My 5th is a Puggle (pug/beagle) who belongs to my son.

    The breeder where I bought my Cavi’s is always telling me to put one in a story. I’ve never put an animal in a story, for just the reasons you said. The story didn’t need it. Usually, my characters are too messed up and have too much going on to have time for a pet. –and speaking of forgetting pets. I read a book where a son was mentioned as being sick–then never again. The kid had been TOTALLY left out. It left me going UHHH? hehe

  2. Lynnette Labelle says:

    Ashlynn: That’s a lot of dogs. 🙂 I love animals, too. My husband teases that I’d start my own zoo if he didn’t keep me in line. LOL So true. Strange about the author forgetting the child in his/her story. I guess that means the child really wasn’t relevant and shouldn’t have been included in the first place.

    Lynnette Labelle

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