By Diane Kelly
Characters with Claws
Developing unique, realistic, and engaging characters is always a challenge. When has quirky gone too far? How “real” do fictional people have to be to maintain credibility? Just how flawed can a writer make a character before the person becomes too irritating or unlikable? As I discovered when writing my K-9 cop series, developing a realistic and engaging non-human character poses these same challenges.
Recognizing that animals are sentient creatures with emotions and the ability to reason is critical to creating a well-developed non-human character. Both instinct and intellect are common to all creatures great and small, from dogs and cats to goats and horses and humans. While those who are unfamiliar with animals might accuse a writer of anthropomorphizing their non-human characters, they would be wrong. Anyone who has spent any appreciable amount of time around animals know that each animal, while sharing some traits with others of its species, will have its own individual behavior patterns, preferences, and idiosyncrasies, just as we people do.
As with their human characters, writers must be careful not to make their non-human characters too stereotypical. My shepherd-mix K-9 cop Brigit has many of the typical shepherd traits. She’s smart. Protective. Loyal. Had these been her only characteristics, though, she would have been a rather bland and predictable secondary character. To give the canine character some teeth, I gave the dog flaws that became critical points of contention between her and her human partner, Officer Megan Luz.
When developing a non-human character, give the animal a flaw that can led to interesting bits of action. In my books, the dog is inordinately stubborn. While Brigit was the standout in her training class, she prefers to be the alpha of the pack rather than cede authority to her human partner, whom she sees as inferior in many respects. The constant battle for dominance is one faced by many owners of intelligent dogs, and leads to a recurring battle of wills between the partners in my stories. Whether your animal character is stubborn, lazy, or neurotic, be sure to weave the character flaw into the story action.
Just as human characters have a bad habit or two, so should non-human characters. No matter how well trained an animal is, it is still an animal and will sometimes engage in animalistic behavior. Take stampeding circus elephants, for example, or the white tiger who mauled Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy, or the killer whale Tilikum at SeaWorld who lived up to the name of his species by killing a human performer. Each of these animals had been extensively trained, yet responded as an animal under the specific circumstances. As the K-9 handlers I interviewed were quick to point out, training does not turn animals into perfectly behaved, emotionless robots.
As smart as my canine heroine Brigit is, she grows bored easily. She also becomes anxious when separated from her partner. What bad habit does this lead to? Chewing. Brigit destroys dozens of pairs of her partner’s shoes throughout the books. The destructive habit makes the police dog more believable and even elicits empathy from readers who relate to the dog’s emotions. Such bad habits can also raise the tension in a story. Readers wonder when the animal will display its bad habits, and also how the human characters will react.
Another challenge posed by non-human characters is that they will have their own priorities and goals, which are often different from, and at odds with, those of the hero or heroine. For example, a trained cadaver dog might want to find a dead body because he or she knows a reward will follow. The dog’s goal is to find a dead body in order to earn some play time or an edible treat. The handler’s goal, however, is to locate a murder victim and preserve the crime scene. In such situations, the human and non-human characters’ conflicting or competing goals can add a deeper dimension to the story and bring the scenes to life. While the dog might want to flop down in the crime scene and eat his liver treat, the handler might want to remove the dog from the immediate vicinity once the body is located in order to avoid contaminating the crime scene.
To sum things up, an author should put as much thought and development into non-human characters as the author devotes to human members of the fictional cast. Do this and readers will sit up and beg for more.
Diane Kelly is a former state assistant attorney general and tax advisor who spent much of her career fighting, or inadvertently working for, white-collar criminals. She is also a proud graduate of her hometown’s Citizens Police Academy. The author of the popular Death and Taxes series, Diane has combined her fascination with law enforcement and her love of animals in her K-9 cop Paw Enforcement series.
To learn more about Diane, please visit her website.