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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Importance of Nonhuman Characters by Sarah J. McNeal

Lily and Liberty

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:


  1. Plus, animals can be characters themselves. ☺ Nice article, Sarah, and you showed excellent use of animals in your stories. You did a great job with Ajax!

    1. Jacquie, you must get up before the sun rises. Thank you for your kind comments. I always enjoy seeing and reading about animals on your FB page. You post some really funny stuff--so much fun!
      Thank you so much for coming and commenting.

  2. I do love an animal in a story! It's a challenge to do it well, but you definitely do, Sarah.

  3. I like an animal in the story just so long as they don't die ;)

    1. LOL I did let a wolf die in THE BEAST OF HAZARD. Joey Wilding applied his best veterinary skills, but could not save her. Please don't shoot me. Although I have written some near-deaths, you'll be glad to know all the rest have survived.
      Thank you so much for your comment, Rain.

  4. You are so correct Sarah. Animals mean so much to some people and they are an extension of who they are. Your use in your stories illustrates it perfectly. I always seem to respond to people the way they are around animals. It is second nature. Here's to the wonderful animals in our stories and our lives. Doris/Angela

    1. My first dog was a Scotty my parents bought for me. His name was Finn. That dog absolutely hated my landlord and a minister that came to visit. As embarrassing as that was, I often wondered what it was about those two people that made Finn react like that. He was fine with everyone else. So I know animals are particular about what humans they like--no matter what I thought about those people. When my dog doesn't like someone right off the bat, I feel guarded.
      Thank you for dropping in and commenting, Doris.

    2. Me also, Sarah. My Sasha only barked at two people and she was correct. Doris

    3. Now I want to know about those 2 people, Doris.

  5. The 1950-60s Walt Disney tv shows just about ruined me for all Disney-related tv/movies that came after. Disney had too many sad stories involved animals. It took me many years to trust Disney after that. It takes a lot (really really a LOT) for me to read a book or watch a movie with animals included, and when I do read/watch, I have to know the animals are "okay" or I won't put myself through the agony.

  6. My goodness, Kaye, I guess from now on I'll have to remember to write a disclaimer at the beginning of an animal story that reads, "all animals in this story survive, even if some people may not," or "one animal did not survive the writing of this book, but was buried with honors." Old Yeller was a loss to us all. I cried right there in the theater, but I cried when Bambi's mother died, too, and pretty dang loud according to my mom.
    Never-the-less, animals do let us know the true character of the people in our stories and it would be difficult to write a western without a horse in it I imagine.
    Thank you for coming by and commenting, Kaye. I truly appreciate it.

  7. Sarah,

    I must have been in a "mood" when I commented yesterday. *sorry* I enjoy your stories, and I'll keep reading them---animals and all. *grin* It's all good with your animals. :-) I even have a story in which a horse dies (because of the bad guy, of course), but it's a small part of the story that I don't dwell on, so it's not a tear-jerker, and I can live with that.

    Yes, how animals are treated do show us the true character of people in our stories and, in our westerns, we are going to include animals, especially horses. I'm good with that, too.

    But, I still worry in 101 Dalmations that Pongo isn't going to make it to the back of that delivery truck with that puppy.....

    1. I can understand how you feel about animals getting killed in a story without a warning. It's so painful.
      I don't like the pictures different animal organizations send when they ask for action or donations either. I wish they'd just use words because the pictures are so disturbing, but I guess that's why they do it--to get enough attention to get people to do something to help.
      I love hearing from you no matter what mood you're in, Kaye.

  8. Animals bring both fun and truth to stories. My Dad always said if the dog doesn't like some one then you had better take another look at them. Plus some of the animals are just characters in their own right.

    1. Lynda, you are so right about animals being characters in their own right. I know Prairie Rose is gathering animal stories for an anthology. Just sayin'...
      Your dad sounds like mine. He trusted the dog's instincts when it came to people he didn't know. Animals don't lie, but they sure do let you know their truth. LOL
      Thank you so much for commenting, Lynda.

  9. You are very wise to include animals, especially dogs, in your stories. They are universally loved and almost no one wants to see or hear about a dog or a horse or any animal being abused. I know there are some idiots out there who injure and abused animals...I think the shelters are full of them. But surely those people will get their due one day.
    My lands, I have not read HJRB yet! I've had it on my Kindle for almost a month..but it's next. Thanks for the reminder.
    Wasn't Old Yeller the most emotional story ever written about a dog? Wow.
    You have something wonderful happening, so don't stop writing about your beloved characters.

    1. Celia, Old Yeller was just about the saddest childhood movie I ever saw except for Nester the Long Eared Donkey whose mother died saving him from a blizzard. We all cried--and we were grownups. Of course, that wasn't abuse from a human being.
      I think there's something wrong with people who abuse animals, like they're broken inside or something.
      HJRB is different from all the Wilding stories that followed. It's a time travel story and (whispering) some bedroom scenes which, as you probably know, I no longer write. But Joe and Lola will always be special characters to me and Banjo is introduced in this story as a streetwise teenager. Anyway, I hope you like it.
      I'm writing the story about Banjo's son who has battle fatigue right now. When I finish I'll be reading your book, Beyond the Blue Mountains.
      It always makes me happy to hear from you, Celia. Thank you so much for taking the time to come over and comment. I feel like you're my neighbor. I wish you really were my neighbor anyway.

  10. Sarah, you know how I am about animals! LOL I don't remember feeling traumatized by Disney movies when I was little, but I do remember wanting to be very careful about my own kids watching them. Isn't that funny? From an adult POV, I didn't want them to be sad or maybe I didn't want to have to explain too much about death to them.

    I love the way you include animals in your stories. It is hard when an animal in the story has to die, but it does help show qualities in the people we've created. I hated it that your wolf died, but it had to be. There's a wonderful, wonderful book by the guy who wrote THE MISSING, Thomas Eidson. It's called St. Agnes' Stand. One of the best books I've ever read. SPOILER ALERT: There is an animal that dies in that book, but it is so poignant and just had to be that way to bring out the feelings of the characters.

    I'm not sure I could ever write an "animal death" in one of my books, but sometimes it has to happen. It's real life.

    Hugs, and sorry I'm late!

    1. Cheryl, thanks for that book recommendation. I wrote down the title and author to look up on Amazon. I'm glad you told me about the spoiler alert so I can brace myself for the death of an animal.
      I don't like killing an animal in a story, but I had to let the wolf die in Beast of Hazard to show the seriousness of the situation.
      The worst thing that happened to me as far as movies with animals in my childhood was when my dad took me to see a movie he believed to be a documentary on polar bears. He was a big conservationist and knew how much I loved animals so he thought it would be a real treat. It was about shooting polar bears from airplanes for trophies--in living, bloody color. Granted, it was about stopping this awful "hunting" technique, but it was terrible to watch. Pop was so upset he had taken me to see it. We left the movie as soon as he realized what it really was about and he apologized over and over again. Honestly, I think Pop was more traumatized by it than I was--maybe.
      I think it's easier to do harm to a human than an animal or child because animals and kids are trusting and innocent and less likely to be able to fight back. I've seen child abuse up close and personal in the ER and it still bothers me. You just can't get over something like that. Retiring early was the best thing I ever did for myself.
      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post and comment. I know how busy you are, so I truly appreciate it.