Posted by: Kathleen Mix | March 26, 2012

Authors’ Best Friends

Several of the books I’ve read in the last two months have animals as secondary characters. I’ve noticed that even authors who sometimes have difficulty creating well-rounded human characters can write wonderful pets. And authors who shine at characterization give us animals we’d like to take home and keep.
In Tangled Up in You, Rachel Gibson introduces readers to a stray kitten that adopts the cat-hating heroine. We have to love the kitten, not just because of the cute factor but also because it has spunk. The kitten has decided where she wants to live, and no mere human is going to tell her otherwise.
In Catch a Shadow by Patricia Potter, the heroine owns an African Grey parrot named Merlin. The bird has a fascinating backstory. He was rescued from living with drug dealers, so he can imitate the wail of a police siren and yell, “Cops coming…cops coming.” He also screeches, “Help!” Merlin fits beautifully into the author’s suspense plot. Above all else, he’s memorable and has a personality that compels readers to care.
Author Jennifer Crusie is a master of characterization. In Agnes and the Hit Man, co-authored with Bob Mayer, readers are treated to two crazy flamingoes and a lovable hound dog. The flamingoes honk frantically ‘as if a giant duck were being turned inside out’ as they race, wings-flapping, toward the river. The dog sleeps ‘draped over her (the heroine’s) feet like a moth-eaten brown overcoat’ and ‘hoovers’ up cupcakes from the floor ‘at the speed of light’. We picture these scenes, laugh at the animals’ antics, and hate to see these characters go when the story ends.
I theorize that authors can create such great secondary characters because they know and love similar animals. They can fondly recall the antics of a puppy or kitten and translate their feelings for the pet into wonderful words of description. Plus they can’t take shortcuts and tell us the animal’s thoughts and feelings, they must show the animals body language and actions to get across emotions and grab our hearts.
Maybe authors fail to write characters we can empathize with due to a lack of love for the character or lack of familiarity with a person who has their protagonist’s traits.
Whatever the reason, I’ve never met a fictional animal I didn’t like. I wish I could say the same for the many weak or unbelievable human characters I’ve run across in my reading.

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