Construction Zone: Pros and Cons of Writing Pets

I realize my title is a bit vague, but I wasn’t referring to the pets of writers, but rather the pros and cons of including pets in our stories. I’m a big animal/pet lover, so my first inclination is to give any stable characters some sort of pet. It’s just my own personal “thing” – right or wrong, in my fictional world stable characters have pets.

Pets can add a lot to a story, but they can make it ten times more difficult to write, in my opinion. When I decide to give a character a pet, not only do I need to have all the care info for that particular animal, but I have to work it seamlessly into the character’s days/actions. If a pet appears in the beginning, the thread must be continued all the way through, otherwise readers are left hanging and wondering what on earth happened to the pet. I didn’t learn that as a writer – I learned it as a reader who always wondered what happened to the dog or cat or rabbit when things got chaotic. Pets don’t just “disappear” – unless the author says they do (and even then, I want to know why & who’s looking after it).

In the first draft of Her Private Chef, Hannah had two pets – a cat and a dog. In the second, she just has a dog….and a smaller breed who is easier to move around with. Adam in Indelibly Inked has a dog named Sly who’s been out of the picture too long now…I lost his “thread”, and need to pick it back up again. In both cases I try to use the pet for a couple of things – to show the character’s, um…character, to provide more drama and conflict, and occasionally to inject a little comic relief. Someday I’d love to write about someone with a quirky taste in pets – perhaps a nasty iguana or a jealous bird. I’m still working on how to work those in…

For writers – do your characters have pets? Any particular reason? Do you find that adding a pet makes the writing more work?
For readers – how do you feel about pets in fiction? What’s your favorite fictional pet? What bugs you most about pets in novels?

9 comments on “Construction Zone: Pros and Cons of Writing Pets

  1. Dolly

    My characters don’t have pets unless it is somehow necessary to portray them as pet people. On the whole, I am not that much touched by reading about pets as such in books, but rather by the character’s emotional reaction to their pets. But then I am not really a pet person, so I certainly never stop on the street to pet stranger’s dogs. Same thing applies in the books for me.

  2. J. Koyanagi

    I have two pets and love animals, but in fiction, I don’t usually want to see pets thrown in unless they move the plot forward or serve as major vehicles of character development. Or, if the pets are major characters themselves (Enzo from The Art of Racing in the Rain comes to mind). It’s pretty much the same as any other element in the story: is it there for a reason, or is it truly random? Does it illuminate something relevant to the story?

    I think a good author can handle it well. That said, I’ve seen several manuscript excerpts in which the pets just served to slow down the story as we watched the character go through their morning routine of feeding the pet. It’s much like the “shower, get dressed, drive to work” quotidian activities that readers just don’t need to see.

    Last, I also raise an eyebrow when I see a pet introduced, because I hope it’s not only there to be killed later. It seems both cliche and unnecessary vehicle for demonstrating the rising level of threat/danger or an emotional curve ball for the character(s). (Same with children who are used this way.)

  3. SidniM

    Adding a pet to a story does make it difficult, unless the pet is in the main action which for me never happens.

    I also find it funny when this happens in movies too. You’re like, “OK, you just had to leave home on an exotic round the world caper—who’s feeding your cat? Did I miss the scene where you called your mom to see is she could swing by a few times?” It’s even worse when the character’s baby goes missing half way through the flick.

  4. Heidi Sutherlin

    I don’t think I’ve really spent any time thinking about this particular subject. I really enjoy when a pet is used in a story, especially when they seem to have a special part and are not just window dressing. Even if it’s a small part, I think it adds another layer to the story. I am definitely an animal person, so that effects how I read the furry characters, but I don’t base my reading preferences on the pet/no pet debate. If they are there, great, if not, no big deal.

  5. Jamie D.

    Indeed – I think we agree in that it’s the relationship between the pet and the person that matters…really, there’s no reason for anyone to have a pet if there’s no meaning in it. Thanks for your thoughts as a non-pet person – I don’t have any real perspective from that side of the fence, so it’s helpful to know.

  6. Jamie D.

    Oddly, I don’t really care for books with pets as the main character…I’m not sure why, but I lose interest fairly quickly. Though now that I think about it. some of my favorite books have animal characters, but they’re mostly classics – the Secret of Nimh, Charlotte’s Web, Call of the Wild. It’s probably because modern animal-based books are largely written in 1st person. And we all know my bias on that. *sigh*

    I agree, a pet has to be there for a reason, just like any other story element. I’ll admit to hoping pets aren’t just there to die as well, but since I write romance, that doesn’t really factor into my plotting.

  7. Jamie D.

    LOL – Those are the exact same questions I ask when reading/watching stories with pets. Who’s letting the dog out? Where’d the cat go? And I also sort of wonder about people who do exactly what I did with the serial story – introduce a pet and then shuffle it out of the way. In that case, was the pet really necessary in the first place?

    It’s pretty rare a child makes an appearance in any of my work, so not much chance of losing one of those.

  8. Jamie D.

    Yeah, I don’t really choose reading material based on whether there are pets or not…but I do enjoy them when they are added. Janet Evanovich is spectacular at using pets in her novels for everything from character growth to comic relief – they really add so much “life” to her stories.