Animals in books: cute, endearing. Risky?

When its eyes met mine…

cover Crazy For You by Jennifer Crusie“On a gloomy March afternoon, sitting in the same high school classroom she’d been sitting in for thirteen years, gritting her teeth as she told her significant other for the seventy-second time since they’d met that she’d be home at six because it was Wednesday and she was always home on six on Wednesdays, Quinn McKenzie lifted her eyes from the watercolour assignments on the desk in front of her and met her destiny.”

Jennifer Crusie is famous for putting wonderful dogs in her books and this is no exception. Quinn’s destiny is a small black dog with desperate eyes and he isn’t a prop, a cute accessory for her heroine. He gets the opening line in Crazy For You, because he’s about to change her life.

Animals in books? Dogs, more dogs and a duckling or two

Georgette Heyer put animals in books, shown here with her dogGeorgette Heyer, seen here with her dog, was another author who used dogs, kittens, even ducklings to delight us. In a long scene in The Grand Sophy the ducklings escape, are recaptured and generally cause chaos. 


Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay

Venetia‘s Flurry flew to her rescue when, shockingly, Damerel kissed her. Unfortunately Flurry desisted the moment he was commanded to “sit”, recognising a master when he heard one. But he was enough of a distraction for Venetia to extract herself. Once she’d done that, she was more than a match for the man!

And Ulysses, the disreputable mongrel Arabella foisted on Beaumaris, is a joy. 

But writers beware!

hamster, one of animals in booksDo not think you can slip an animal into your book as an accessory. It’s not something that you can put down and forget about until you need it.

Any creature, however small, if it has a place in your story, is as much a character as any of the humans who walk across your pages.

This is Hector, a hamster who, despite being a figment of Ginny’s imagination in The Billionaire Takes A Bride, caused havoc. And no one had to feed him or clean his cage! Perfect!

Not just dogs…

Like any secondary human character, animals in books must have a purpose for being there. But they can be trouble, if not for the hero or heroine of your story, for the writer.

I learned this lesson early on when I wrote The Bride, the Baby & the Best Man. In my head I could clearly see the handsome English setter following Harry March as he limped across the entrance hall. But that was it. In every scene I was faced with the the “Where is the dog? What is it doing?” questions.

And the answer was nothing. There was no reason for him to be there and when I’d written half the book and the dog had not appeared anywhere apart from that first scene, I knew he had to go.

…but cats

Siamese kitten, one of animals in booksThe Siamese kitten, on the other hand, had a lot to do with the plot.

There is no room for anything—animal, vegetable or mineral—that isn’t moving the plot forward, isn’t helping to define the hero and heroine and show the reader who they are.

But animals in books are not all cute

snarling dogWhen their role has purpose, they can add another dimension to the story. And it’s not always warm cuddles.

It’s impossible to imagine Bill Sykes without his bull terrier, Bull’s Eye, who is so much a part of him that it follows his master to his death. Or Baskerville without its hound, raising gooseflesh with its howls on whoever hears it.

And then there’s Rochester’s Pilot — “a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees.” — that Jane mistakes for a Gytrash, a ghost animal.

Newfoundland dog

Image by Maximilliane from Pixabay

I haven’t entirely given up on the animal kingdom. Dora, a long-haired dachshund, certainly made herself felt in a recent book. A couple of French bulldogs have a walk-on part in Christmas Reunion in Paris, and then there’s Nigel, almost a Newfoundland, in Past Echoes, part of the Beach Hut Surprise anthology.

cover Arabel and Mortimer by Joan AikenWhat fictional animal has captured your heart?
Or frozen it with fear?

I have just bought my granddaughter a copy of Joan Aiken’s Arabel & Mortimer — Mortimer is a Raven. It was a Jackanory favourite when my daughter was a girl. We both loved it!

Liz Fielding


16 thoughts on “Animals in books: cute, endearing. Risky?

  1. Sophie

    You’ve made me realise how seldom animals appear in my books, Liz. I wonder why. A disgruntled boyfriend once told me I was a push-over for anything with four feet and fur – just horrible to real people.

    Maybe it’s because when I first started to write for M&B an editor gave me four things that were too difficult for a newbie to handle. I suppose it was felt they distracted from the main story.

    The list was: pets, weekends with friends, heirloom houses and a hero with a living mother. Yes, I queried it. She didn’t mean loving, she meant alive.

    Well, an heirloom house got me in the end. Maybe a pet next…

  2. Liz Fielding

    That’s interesting, Sophie. I was never given the list but I can only remember a couple of my heroes with living mothers. One of them gave him a slap! I find it more and more difficult to write heroes and heroines without living family. I heard someone on R4 talking about the “orphan” children in books and she said it was something to do with that post WW1 generation.

    1. Joanna

      Your comment made me think about my own books, Liz. In historicals, if the hero has a title (not a courtesy title) he can’t have a living father. Some have had dowager mothers. In The Aikenhead Honours (which I’m in the process of republishing) the dowager duchess was a really important character. I’ve done a lot of brothers, though.

      1. Liz Fielding

        In the days before antibiotics, and post natal infections were rife, Joanna, killing off the parents was not so tricky. These days it requires something nasty. A dowager duchess, on the other hand, is always useful!

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    The one animal you can get away with in historicals is a horse. There are always grooms to look after them in their downtime in the story. But I agree. It’s difficult to maintain a pet throughout. Heyer was particularly successful with Ulysses who played a large role in the story. As you say, if they are there, they have to be a character.

    1. Joanna

      Dead right, Liz. In historicals, it’s difficult not to have a horse 😉 So I’ve done lots of those.

      Heyer was very clever with all those animals in The Grand Sophy. She gave them all (except her Italian greyhound) to the children. That got them out of the way until they were needed for crucial scenes, like the one with the monkey, or the foul-mouthed parrot.

  4. lesley2cats

    I write in a different genre, so I suppose I would be different! I have a regular dog, who gets taken out for useful walks sometimes, and two regular cats and an occasional one to suit an occasional character. Also, I have a living mother, as it were. Couldn’t do without them.

    1. Liz Fielding

      Cats are so independent, Lesley. A comfort when you need them but once you’ve fed them, duty done. And Ben’s mother is an essential provider of mouth watering roasts and a table to chat around.

  5. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Interesting post – and I, too, love the ducklings in ‘The Grand Sophy’. I don’t have animals in my own novels – unless it’s a horse – I understand horses because I rode as a child, but I am allergic to dogs (swollen itchy eyes) and seriously allergic to cats (swollen, itchy eyes to full-blown asthma attacks) but my heroines do at least admire them from afar!

  6. Liz Fielding

    Sympathies on the allergies, Elizabeth. Even if you don’t want either cat or dog, it’s an unpleasant inconvenience when visiting friends.

  7. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Now I come to think of it, my hero had a cat called Ben in ‘The Cabochon Emerald’. Sophie Weston had a most attractive of that name at the time, so I gave him a walk on role!

  8. Elizabeth Rolls

    I’ve done quite a number of animals in my books. Yes, I can hear the maniacal laughter from those of you who know me and are familiar with my menagerie. In my real world there are animals all over the place. Dogs, cats, you name it, so they tend to appear in my books. I’m perfectly comfortable with horses, too. Which is just as well writing Regencies. In my last book the hero’s dog was a major character. I’ve only had a couple of heroes and/or heroines with living parents of either stripe as far as I can recall. That last book again – both the heroine’s parents are living, but highly unpleasant. They were important for the plot.

Comments are closed.