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Animals: Part One

In thinking about possible topics for this post, I realized that we have a subject here that’s quite underrepresented considering how much people tend to like them. Animals!  This could actually be a really broad topic. Animals appear in literature in all sorts of ways, in roles both large and small. Instead of trying to tackle the whole enormous range, though, today I’m going to blog about animals as part of the setting.

Almost no matter where your novel is set, animals live there too. Maybe it’s moose and bears. Maybe it’s sloths and snakes. Maybe it’s pigeons and cockroaches. Whatever the animal, they’re there. And they can help your story. At the very least, they are great for atmosphere. Birds and insects chirping are background noises just the way that traffic or music or wind are. You would notice, wouldn’t you, if your neighbor’s overloud music cut off suddenly? You’d notice just as much if your pond full of peepers* went dead silent. Or maybe your character is nervous and alone. You know what might make them even more nervous? A bird taking off from a tree. A raccoon digging through garbage. A mouse scampering across the kitchen. A bug landing in their hair. These are living creatures who move unexpectedly and can increase tension (or release tension—maybe your character finds it hilarious that she was so over-jumpy and calms down). Or maybe your character is in a terrible mood because she failed a test and her boyfriend broke up with her and suddenly there’s a fly in her room that will not. stop. buzzing. I don’t know about the rest of you, but flies can drive me crazy even at the best of times.

A complete lack of animal life can be disconcerting, too. Maybe your character survived a nuclear attack and he just discovered that the floor of his apartment is coated with dead cockroaches. This is a) disgusting and b) worrying, since people have the thought that cockroaches would survive something like that. So if they died…. Or maybe your character has just made an emergency spaceship landing on an unfamiliar planet and she desperately needs for there to be life here. She probably will be checking out the air and the soil when she exits her spacecraft and it won’t be promising if she doesn’t even find any insects, will it?

We’ve also given animals a lot of symbolism throughout time, and subtly (yes, subtly—no one needs to be slapped in the face with it) weaving that into your book can be a boost, too. If you google “animal symbolism” you’ll see that there are approximately one bazillion websites on the subject. Many, many animals hold symbolism to at least one culture, and some animals hold symbolism to tons of cultures.

Now, there are some things I’d like to say about animals on the fringe of your story, interacting with your characters a little more than just as background noise, but not important enough that they’re not still part of the setting, but I think I have enough to say about that that I want to make it its own blog post, so I will end this post here, and ask you all: how much do you incorporate animals into the background of your story?

*A type of frog

Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. One of my favorite things about world building is the animals--especially because I write fantasy. Does my world have normal animals like cats and dogs and birds, mystical creatures like unicorns, or completely new animals I've made up? I love it! And because I'm such a horse nut, I don't think I've ever written a book that doesn't at least mention equines. Haha!

    1. Making up animals is definitely a bonus of writing fantasy! I love doing that, too.

  2. My main character is a creature from folklore, so her interaction with animals is either hunting them, or training with them. I'm an animal lover, especially dogs, so I look forward to writing a novel with pets interlaced into the story.

    I just finished a novel by Jayne Anne Krentz, and she almost always has a pet as a supporting character in her stories. Pets just seem to add a dose of reality and a smile to the book.

  3. Funny you should write about animals. Yesterday I had an encounter with a gopher that completely shaped the rest of my afternoon and I decided to include its behavior into my current WIP. If an animal can alter the mood in real life, it can definitely do the same in a book.

    In Mike Mullin's Ashfall, the well-being of a pet rabbit helps create the tension, and even though the rabbit is a minor character in the book, as a reader I really felt attached to the rabbit and began to associate the rabbit's well-being with the well-being of the main characters. Animals provide a great way to subtly shape scenes and moods and I think writers often overlook the impact they can have on a story.

  4. I'm always thrilled when I run across a book where a pet, like a cat or a dog, features in the story. Diana Wynne Jones did cats. I think my favorite is Starswarm by Pournelle. People running around an unfriendly alien planet with genetically engineered dogs who have nearly human-intelligence. The dogs keep the alien life from killing people who leave the compound. I thought it was a brilliant, logical idea.

  5. Most of my story is set in the woods of Piedmont North Carolina (where I live), so you almost can't not encounter animals. So far Addie's heard a lot of birdsong, droning insects, creaking frogs, and fluttering bats. On the shoulder of the highway she had to be careful not to step on any roadkill, and she picked up an exciting collection of mosquito bites on her face and hands. Now she's in an abandoned house, where she's walked into spiderwebs and both seen and smelled the evidence of rodent habitation. She's also trying not to think about the little lifeless piles of soft, furry debris on the living room floor. In the backyard is a well with something rotting in it, and an abandoned shed she won't look into because the kudzu around it might be full of snakes.

    In a few minutes she's going to get up (after her first night spent in the woods) and be unpleasantly reminded of the wide variety of invertebrates that also live here. I'm thinking constellations of chigger and mosquito bites, and a small colony of embedded ticks... *evil smile* If I have to suffer them, she does, too!

  6. My stories are all centered around animals - anthropomorphic animals to be precise. It makes for an interesting world because they interact with animals too. They even eat them.

    Also, my novel fights the idea that novels about anthro animals all have to be cutesy or fantasy, or at the very least, devoid of modern or futuristic technology. There's very few popular anthro novels that actually feel MODERN.


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Item Reviewed: Animals: Part One Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward