Very few things can hook a reader like an animal. Dogs, cats, fish, birds, little talking geckos with the voice of Ricky Gervais–they’re all part of our lives. Our companions, and sometimes our only friends. Why not offer our characters the same comfort?
One of the most memorable parts of a book I read nigh on twenty years ago now involved a cat. The book was a sword-n-sorcery epic fantasy (something by Tad Williams) involving the fairly standard “kitchen boy gets caught up in national political affairs” plot. I don’t remember much of anything from either the main plot, or even the main character (other than him having a lock of white hair), but I remember him, when he first escaped witnessing Something Epically Awful, huddling in a tunnel, scared and hungry, and the presence of a cat comforting him in the darkness.
I remember wondering if the cat were going to turn out to be either a powerful good guy or a powerful bad guy, but it turned out that the cat was just a cat. And darned if I don’t still remember that feeling, nearly twenty years later, of how that scared kid felt so alone until that cat showed up and gave him something (soft and purring) to hold onto. Never mind the Epic World Changing he’d go on to surely do. I completely identified with that kid in those moments, belly churning for him as he hid from Great Hordes of Evil, and I thought, “it’s all gonna be okay, because that kid’s got a cat.”
I’m working on a WIP now where the main character’s wife left him not long after his mother died after a protracted illness. What set him most adrift wasn’t his mother’s death–he’d had time to prepare, given her lingering illness–nor was it his wife’s abandonment–the writing was on the wall a while before it happened. It wasn’t the fact that when she left him, she took everything but the dog.
It was that she came back for the dog.
Losing the dog caused my main character to lose his last remaining anchor. Not only that, but for reasons best left unsaid, he knows she wasn’t wrong to come back for the dog.
Pets add a layer of connection and responsibility for our characters that, in turn, gives us deeper insights into their personalities. Even Evil Overlords usually have something they love or at least care for. A scrap of an animal might just keep the last vestiges of humanity in an otherwise cartoonish villain. Unlike us, pets don’t truly deceive–they can often ferret out (see what I did there?) the real, underlying emotions driving our actions, especially when the actions don’t seem to support what we say we’re feeling. How often have you insisted, “I’m fine,” only to have the dog shove his nose under your hand, or the cat boof you with her head and those unblinking eyes calmly telling you, “No, you’re not, hairless-food-monkey. However, if you attend me, your mood will improve.” And how many times has that critter been absolutely right? Don’t lie, now. We all know the dog really didn’t do it. 😉