One of my favorite fantasy books is The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. Two of the most interesting characters in this book are a horse named Tsornin and a hunting cat called Narknon. They each have fully-formed personalities and are integral to moving the plot forward.
For this post, when I’m talking about animal characters I don’t mean anthropomorphized animals like the rabbits in Watership Down. I’m talking about animals that naturally inhabit the setting of your story and who are important and well-written enough to become characters.
When I first started sharing my fiction with a few college professors, one of them commented on the fact that the unicorns were well-written. He said that it showed I had spent time around horses to be able to make them believable. I do have some experience with horses — my cousin owns one and when I was growing up there were two at my grandparents’ house — but I’ve never had a horse of my own.
A major part of writing believable animal characters is not making a glaring mistake. When talking about parts of a horse, get the terminology right. Describe spooking accurately. Find message boards where horse people congregate and read how they talk about their horses. Better yet, track down a horse person in real-life and interview them.
I read a Lucy Maude Montgomery book recently called The Blue Castle. By the way she described one cat’s insistently aloof possession of a particular chair, I think I can safely say that Montgomery was a cat person. Actually living with a cat gives you a unique perspective on their ability to fit into any box, how to describe the feel of a rumbling purr against your hand, and the tiny chill that goes down your back when cat glares at you and you’re so very glad you aren’t mouse-size.
There are rarely any dogs in my stories, and so far none have been in the story enough to be called a “character”. I don’t feel compelled or qualified to write them (I’m not very comfortable around most dogs, though I’ve met a few I liked). However, I’ve read excellent stories like Scout by Julie Nye and Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield that featured wonderfully written canine characters. I suppose they are like cats in that it is best to own one before writing about them. If you’re like me, however, but still want to put a dog in your novel I’d start by reading articles such as Writing About Dogs and talking with dog owners.
My brother has owned two pet lovebirds. If you’ve never owned a lovebird, you might think they are cute and snugly just based on their name. If you’ve owned a lovebird you know they are noisy, very territorial, and have strange quirks. Greenie would lie on her back holding a plastic cat toy above her and screaming as if she were being tortured. Rodney likes to take baths in clean water and only drink after the water is dirty. If you can track down stories like this about the kind of birds you’re writing, it will lend a touch of credibility and character.
Falcons and falconry are something I’ve barely touched on, though I think I should since I write Medieval-like fantasy. I suppose I would start research for this with SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) groups such as Saint Bavon’s Company of Falconry.