When I say “nonhuman characters,” of course, I mean animals. Since I am deeply concerned with the welfare of animals and love my furry children, I use them in much of what I write. How characters interact with animals in a story speaks of their intentions and moral fiber. If a character kicks a dog or runs a horse into the ground for no good reason, you can bet the reader isn’t going to like them very much. They may seem like subtle signs of character building but they’ll make a difference in the reader’s perception of that character.
For instance, if a character who is handsome or beautiful, attentive, and charming shows up in the beginning as a possible love interest, an animal can be a way of warning the reader this person needs further investigation. A negative comment about a beloved dog, or a show of distain for a sickly cat should lead the reader to understand this character is not to be trusted.
In Harmonica Joe’s Reluctant Bride, the villain, a ridiculous, bumbling man threatens Lola believing, like everyone else in the story, that she is the infamous Callie Magraw. To intensify Weston’s villainous intentions and show what a deadly threat he truly poses, I had him shoot Joe’s dog, Argos. The dog almost dies. I hope the reader hates him for it. If no one got what a ruthless scoundrel Weston was before he shot Argos, I’m certain they will after he commits such a horrible act on an innocent dog. Joe and Lola, of course go into action and save the dog’s life but no one is about to forgive Weston for shooting Argos.
The dog also likes Lola right away, confusing Joe about his belief that Lola is really Callie. Callie, naturally, didn’t like Joe’s dog, but Lola showers Argos with fond attention.
So, in my mind, an animal in a story can tell the reader a great deal about the characters that live in that book.
Excerpt of Lola and Joe after they discover Argos has been shot:
Lola knelt on the floor beside the dog and worried over him. “Is he going to be okay, Joe? He looks so awful.” She ran her hands through his thick fur and said a silent prayer that Argos would recover. Her heart squatted in her chest, dark and heavy.
Kneeling beside her, Joe whispered. “Not to worry, darlin’, Argos is going to have a hard time, but he’s going to come out on the other end just fine. We’re going to make damn sure of that.” He reached out a hand and ran it in a light stroke along Lola’s cheek to wipe away the tears that had fallen without her realizing how much she needed to cry.
Harmonica Joe’s Reluctant Bride is also available in a western collection titled A Cowboy’s Brand for 99 cents on Amazon.
An animal can show the deep psychological trauma of a story character as well.
In Fly Away Heart I presented an abused dog, neglected and beaten by Edgar Effird. The dog’s abuse also represented the kinds of abuse Edgar heaped on his son, Sid. Although Sid was also a villain, I hoped to show how his father dominated him and forced him to do horrible things. Sid was as abused as the dog—and that gave a bit of hope that he might eventually turn his life around some day.
Excerpt of Robin as he rescues the Effirds’ dog:
The dog drew his attention when it whined pitifully. Its brown eyes seemed to plead with him. Somehow, he just couldn’t bring himself to walk away from the suffering creature. If he couldn’t get to Lilith, at least he could get this dog to safety. He knew, if he left the poor thing here, it would die a slow death for certain.
He made his way to the shaking pile of bones that resembled a dog and removed the clamp on the heavy chain. The dog could barely walk, and it made Rob sick to see the bones protruding from the animal’s ribs and hips. What kind of human beings were these two men? Did they eat babies for breakfast? He hoisted the dog into his arms, walked back to the car, opened the back door, and placed the dog on his jacket on the back seat. Something in its brown eyes looked like gratitude, mixed with fear. Rob felt his heart crack.
Fly Away Heart is also part of a wonderful collection of five sweet novels titled Love’s First Touch on Amazon for 99 cents.
I’ve also written animals as heroes like Ajax, the war horse, in the WWI novel, For Love of Banjo. And Jasmine, the elephant, rescued by the Wildings in The Beast of Hazard along with several other circus refugee animals. But one of my favorite hero animals is Lonesome, the patient pinto horse, in Home For The Heart, my recent submission to Prairie Rose. In this story an orphaned, half Lakota boy with a chip on his shoulder finds a change of heart during equine therapy with Lonesome.
I love animals and want them to live happy, carefree lives. I do my part to help advance their cause. Animal rescue and conservation of the earth and its creatures are things I care about passionately, so no wonder I enjoy writing them into a story. Animals can tell us so much about the characters’ true motivations for good or evil. If a dog bares its teeth and growls in one of my stories, the reader will want to pay attention. Just sayin'...
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: