Animals as props or characters in your novel

In the past, I have written about using cats as characters since there are cat-like creatures in my fantasy trilogy, The Elemental. Today, I want to focus on using any type of animal in your novel, whether they are there just as an animal or as a character within the story.

Okay before I begin, I guess I have to differentiate between just having an animal and having a character that just so happens to be an animal. If your character is feeding the chickens or walking her mom’s dog than most likely these are only animals in the story. These animals are more like props to help set a realistic scene rather than integral to the story telling.

horse faceHowever, if the horse your hero rides has a habit of biting people, being stubborn or making his own decisions and these traits play a part in the story, then, in my opinion, your animal has gone from just being a prop to being a minor character. In my case, my animals play a much bigger role as they even communicate telepathically with the humans and in some cases major characters.

When including animals in your novel – whether as story props or as a character – you need to know how these animals would behave. It helps if you have spent time with the animal and know how it moves and reacts. I choose cats as I am a cat lover and have been around cats my entire life. I like to think that my knowledge of cats comes through in my writing and that my cat characters behave in ways you expect cats to behave.

If you don’t have personal experience with the animal you are writing about there are lots of options for you to read up on their behavior or better yet watch videos of the animal to help make your descriptions accurate and realistic. Again, research is key.

Now having animals as characters is not limited to fantasy writing. Many other authors use animals as characters such as Rita Mae Brown in her Mrs. Murphy mysteries or Lillian Jackson Braun in her Cat Who series.

One thing you will need to decide when including animals as characters is how they will communicate with humans or other animals. Will the animals speak to each other as they do in Charlotte’s Web or will they be restricted to animal-like behavior such as the cats Koko and Yum Yum from Braun’s mystery series? Animals can convey a lot non-verbally.


Tosh – the telepathic “cat” from my THE ELEMENTAL trilogy

Or perhaps they can communicate with humans. It is your world, so they could talk or be telepathic as my “cats” and dragons are in my trilogy. You could even change the animals behavior to include things we mere Earthlings would be shocked to see but could be the norm for the people of the world you create. So animals could be able to pick up items, walk on two legs, smoke a cigar or open doors while here we just expect them to meow or purr.

Just remember that if you are using animals as a character, you will need to develop them as you would any other character. This goes beyond their physical description. They need a history, their own quirks and problems. In other words, you need to do the work to make the real to your readers.

World building: Don’t rename ordinary items and other tips

I have written before about the fun of building your own world. It is one of the reasons that I enjoy writing fantasy. But building a new world with religions, governments, cultures and history can be a daunting task.

Developing your world BEFORE you begin writing is essential if you want to keep the details of your fictitious world consistent and logical throughout your novel. You want your characters to LIVE in this world so make it real and believable.

Now there is a whole bunch of world building details that you will develop that will never enter your novel. Don’t get hung up on the small details of your world. For as much as you want to make everything your own, you don’t need to spend your time recreating the wheel so to speak.

Here are some world building tips:

  • Language – You don’t necessarily need to create your own. I know Tolkien did but he was a trained professional in the art of linguistics. You throw in too many words from a made-up language, and you could easily confuse and possibly lose your readers.
  • Spelling – Avoid too many obscure spellings. Just because your story takes place in a different world doesn’t mean you need to name all the people and places with obscure, hard to pronounce (or remember) names.
  • Apostrophes – Another common mistake when creating a new world is to have lots of words with apostrophes in an effort to make the words look different or unique. Remember that in most languages, an apostrophe is merely a sign that something has been omitted. Use them with caution.
  • baby bunny 17Animals – If you are creating a whole other creature that does not exist on Earth that is fine but too many authors simply rename animals. If you are writing about small, big-eared, short-tailed, fluffy animals, then go ahead and refer to them as rabbits instead of some made-up name. The same goes for horses. If your characters travel by horse-back, you don’t need to rename the horse unless it perhaps has razor-sharp fangs and two heads. Reinventing the entire animal kingdom would be annoying especially if the animals exist for no other purpose than to be described in passing. If they are important to your story, then by all means create your own creatures.
  • Units of Measure – You don’t have to necessarily worry about creating new ways of measuring things. Yes, meters and kilograms maybe be more recent inventions but there is nothing wrong with using “steps” or “feet” as measurement. In ancient times, using steps or the length of a forearm were common practices.

It is easier on you and your readers if you don’t recreate everything. If you are not careful, it will seem like your book is written in a foreign language and leave your reader struggling to understand what is going on. And not recreating everything will save you as a writer time too.