As you’ve heard by now, the vast majority of the Magical Words team spent Labor Day weekend in Atlanta with 52,000 of our closest friends. DragonCon is a humongous spec-fic con featuring film, television, literature, art, comic, music and costuming guests and experts sharing their knowledge and opinions with fans. You can go to panels, have photos taken with actors and buy your favorite author’s books all in the course of a single day. On Friday I served on a panel called “Talking Cats and Clever Rats”, about animals in our stories and what their presence means.
If you live in a city, you probably don’t see animals around too often, besides the occasional flock of pigeons or the cockroach that freezes on the kitchen floor when you turn on the light at 2 am. But they’re around. A story without animals is lacking something important – that spark of the earth’s life that you may not notice but that’s always in the back of your awareness. My writing desk sits in front of a window that looks over my back yard, and sometimes when I’m sitting here quietly in the evening, suddenly I’ll glance out the window and see rabbits and deer having a nice graze. When I was a kid, I lived within yards of a tidal marsh, and I saw more frogs and herons and alligators than I can even recall. Animals are all around our real lives, and they deserve a spot in our imaginary ones as well. Whether you populate your story with real-world animals or fantastic creatures, they need to be there.
Not only do animals grant a certain realism to your fiction, they also provide opportunities for your characters to show their true selves. There’s a maxim I see shared on Facebook all the time, usually added to a photo of a big-eyed puppy or a fluffy kitten – “You can easily judge a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” If none of your characters suspect your bad guy is bad, you can drop an excellent hint by writing a few sentences in which he’s witnessed kicking a stray dog just because it was close to him. On the other hand, if nobody trusts your hero, let him rescue a cat from drowning when he thought no one was looking. When your main character has an animal companion, the reader’s perception of that character is greatly influenced by that relationship. In Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, for example, Atticus O’Sullivan is the last of the Druids, a man of great age and power. He’s lived so long that there’s nothing and no one he can’t walk away from. His house, his collection of rare magical tomes…it’s all stuff to him. Useful, valuable, but not worth dying over. He can even leave behind people who’ve become important in his life, wishing them well as he goes. But when his Irish wolfhound, Oberon, is threatened in any way, Atticus will move heaven and earth to protect him. That dedication to his animal companion connects Atticus to the reader in a way that his power never could.
Are there animals in your stories? What kind? Why are they there? Let’s talk.